Saturday, August 8, 2009

Thinking in French . . . or Spanish . . . or English

When I started dreaming in French, I knew that I was finally absorbing the language on a subconscious as well as a conscious level. But I never thought that the people who speak different languages think differently. So I was fascinated to read an article by Lera Boroditsky explaining how language shapes the way we think.

The Kuuk Thaayorre (an Aboriginal community in northern Australia) use cardinal directions to refer to space , for example, “There’s an ant on your southeast leg.” “The normal greeting in Kuuk Thaayorre is "Where are you going?" and the answer should be something like " Southsoutheast, in the middle distance." If you don't know which way you're facing, you can't even get past "Hello."

Many languages have masculine and feminine words, and researchers have discovered that this shapes the way people think about those objects. "In one study, we asked German and Spanish speakers to describe objects having opposite gender assignment in those two languages. The descriptions they gave differed in a way predicted by grammatical gender. For example, when asked to describe a "key" — a word that is masculine in German and feminine in Spanish — the German speakers were more likely to use words like "hard," "heavy," "jagged," "metal," "serrated," and "useful," whereas Spanish speakers were more likely to say "golden," "intricate," "little," "lovely," "shiny," and "tiny." To describe a "bridge," which is feminine in German and masculine in Spanish, the German speakers said "beautiful," "elegant," "fragile," "peaceful," "pretty," and "slender," and the Spanish speakers said "big," "dangerous," "long," "strong," "sturdy," and "towering."

The author concludes by saying, “Language is central to our experience of being human, and the languages we speak profoundly shape the way we think, the way we see the world, the way we live our lives.”

My thanks to Voices en Espanol for leading me to this article.

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