Written in April 2003
Does Language Shape Thought?
Lera Boroditsky (Cognitive Psychology 43, 1–22 (2001))
Scientists and Philosophers have long questioned weather or not the language we speak influences the way we think. This is mainly due to the fact that people who speak different languages often talk about the world in different ways.
Benjamin Lee Whorf, founder of the Linguistic Determinism school of thought, believes that the language spoken determines the thought that is expressed. This strong Whorfian view has long been abandoned in the field. Particularly effective in undermining the strong view was work on color perception demonstrating that the Dani (a tribe in New Guinea) who had very little trouble in learning the English set of color categories, despite only having two words for colors in their language
Although the strong linguistic determinism view seems to have died down, many weaker but still interesting theories exist. Slobin has suggested that language may influence thought during ‘‘thinking for speaking”, meaning that the language we speak may force us to pay more attention to aspects of our lives because of the grammar or vocabulary rules imposed on us. This would mean that speakers of different languages would be biased when encoding memories which would continue to change their view of life.
In this study, three experiments were used to investigate how language affects our ideas on time. The participants were Mandarin and English speakers, both native and bilingual. The Chinese view time vertically whereas English speakers view time horizontally. Examples – “cats climb trees” in Mandarin is “mao shang shu” but they also use the word “shang” in “shang ge yue” directly translating to “last month, and one would descending down a month.
Mandarin speakers tend to think about time vertically even when they think for English – In the first experiment, this was seen when Mandarin speakers were faster to confirm that March comes earlier than April if they had just seen a vertical set objects than if they had just seen a horizontal set, and the reverse was true for English speakers.
A second experiment showed that the extent to which Mandarin–English bilinguals think about time vertically is related to how old they were when they first began to learn English.
In the third experiment, native English speakers were taught to talk about time using vertical “spatial” terms in a way similar to Mandarin. On the next test given, the trained group of English speakers showed the same bias to think about time vertically as was observed with Mandarin speakers.
The study shows that language is a powerful tool in shaping our thoughts abstract concepts and that our native language plays an important role in shaping “habitual thought” (e.g., how we think about time) but does not entirely determine our thinking in the strong Whorfian sense.