Language and Thought

When you think, how do you think?  For me, it feels like I am having a conversation with myself.  Which came first in each of us, though?  Language or thought?  It’s really a fascinating question, when you stop and think about it.  Are language and thought inextricably intertwined?  If you didn’t have language, could you think the thoughts you think?  Or is our higher-level thinking only possible because of our faculty with language?  It seems like more and more that the answer is the latter rather than the former.

This episode of Radiolab was the first time I heard of this branch of scientific research.  I highly, highly recommend that you listen to the episode.  In fact, if you don’t listen to that program, I insist that you start from the beginning and listen to every single episode of Radiolab.  This particular episode is great for three reasons: (1) the very first story is about a 27 year-old deaf man who never learned any language finally realizing that words represent things and the sheer emotional power of that revelation; (2) the interviews with Charles Fernyhough and Elizabeth Spelke about their research into the connections between language and thought with, respectively, mice and children; and (3) the interview with Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroscientist who had the misfortune (or good fortune, depending on your perspective) to have a stroke which temporarily (if 8 years can be called temporary) knocked out the language centers of her brain.  Plus, Radiolab is one of the greatest radio programs available today.

I recently came across another scientist researching this very topic, whom I also wanted to add to that mix from the Radiolab episode.  Lera Boroditsky is an assistant professor at Stanford University in the Department of Psychology.  Besides creating an amazing rollover image for her picture on her website, Dr. Boroditsky researches how language shapes our thinking in more subtle ways than those discussed in Radiolab.

For example, how different languages shape our perception of space.  In English, we think of everything in terms of left, right, front and back.  But there are languages in the world that do not use those concepts.  Instead, they rely on absolutes, such as the cardinal directions: North, South, East and West.  Her research has found that people from these cultures are able to unerringly keep track of these cardinal directions at all times because they have to, unlike our culture, where people often can’t tell you which way is North.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a published article that wasn’t behind a paywall for this concept, but here is a Scientific American article where she describes this phenomenon.

Another aspect that Dr. Boroditsky researched is how our language shapes our perception of time.  In English, we use horizontal metaphors for time: March comes before April.  But in some other languages (Dr. Boroditsky used Mandarin Chinese), they use a vertical metaphor: April is on top of March.  And the experiments she conducted bore this out: native English speakers perceived time better when thinking in horizontally whereas native Mandarin speakers perceived time better when thinking vertically.  She also found a similar effect when it came to eye-witness perceptions of crimes and other events: the language shapes the blame that the eye-witnesses placed on accidental events.

The overall point with all of this seems to be that language and thought are, at the very least, inextricably linked.  Our mental powers are such that humans were able to invent language to convey thoughts to others, but in turn language appears to have given us an ability to think at ever higher levels than we were previously capable of.  And yet further, language subtly shapes how we perceive the things around us in ways that are often too subtle to even notice.

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