Good Read: ‘How Does Our Language Shape the Way We Think?’

By Mary Ann Zehr — June 18, 2009 1 min read
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A researcher at Stanford University has written a fascinating essay, “How Does Our Language Shape the Way We Think?,” in the Edge about her examination of how people who speak different native languages think differently (Hat tip to Education Policy Blog). The researcher is Lera Boroditsky, an assistant professor of psychology, neuroscience, and symbolic systems at Stanford.

She grew up in the former Soviet Union, so she speaks Russian. In Russian, she says, the word “chair” is masculine, and when one says a sentence such as “my chair is old,” every word in the sentence must agree with the gender of chair. But if one speaks a sentence about a bed, which is feminine in Russian, all the words in the sentence must have the feminine form. Boroditsky asks: “Does treating chairs as masculine and beds as feminine in the grammar make Russian speakers think of chairs as being more like men and beds as more like women in some way?”

She finds that it does. Studies show that the gender assignment for nouns in a language, which vary from language to language, affect how speakers of that language think about the object or concept. Boroditsky further expounds in the essay on this idea:

In fact, you don't even need to go into the lab to see these effects of language; you can see them with your own eyes in an art gallery. Look at some famous examples of personification in art—the ways in which abstract entities such as death, sin, victory, or time are given human form. How does an artist decide whether death, say, or time should be painted as a man or a woman? It turns out that in 85 percent of such personifications, whether a male or female figure is chosen is predicted by the grammatical gender of the word in the artist's native language. So, for example, German painters are more likely to paint death as a man, whereas Russian painters are more likely to paint death as a woman.

Boroditsky makes the case as well that what language one speaks can make a difference in how one thinks about space and colors.

The premise of this essay seems to ring true with my personal experiences. One difference I’ve noticed between English and Spanish is that Spanish has a fully developed subjunctive mode, used when expressing uncertainty and emotions, while English incorporates the subjunctive mode only for a few uncommon uses, such as “If I were you (and I’m not), I would go to the event.” I’ve often wondered if that’s one reason the native speakers of Spanish I know seem more comfortable with uncertainty and emotions than many of the native speakers of English I know.

Boroditsky doesn’t provide insight in her essay on how to disentangle the influence of culture from the influence of language. But she’s written a provocative piece that I think could be fodder for a great discussion among secondary English-language learners or educators of such students about the relationship between language and thinking.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.