How languages shape our understanding of the world

by Paul Woodward

Pormpuraaw, Queensland, Australia
Pormpuraaw, Queensland, Australia

There are currently about 7,000 languages spoken around the world. It is estimated that by the end of this century as many as 90% of them will have become extinct.

Some people might think that the fewer languages there are spoken, the more readily people will understand each other and that ideally we should all speak the same language. The divisions of Babel would be gone. But as rational as this perspective might sound, it overlooks the degree to which humanity is further impoverished each time a language is lost — each time a unique way of seeing the world vanishes.

To understand the value of language diversity it’s necessary to recognize the ways in which each language serves as a radically different prism through which its speakers engage with life.

Lera Boroditsky, an assistant professor of psychology at Stanford, talks about how the languages we speak, shape the way we think. The excerpt below comes a video presentation which can be viewed at John Brockman’s Edge:

Let me give you three of my favorite examples on how speakers of different languages think differently in important ways. I’m going to give you an example from space; how people navigate in space. That ties into how we think about time as well. Second, I’m going to give you an example on color; how we are able to discriminate colors. Lastly, I’m going to give you an example on grammatical gender; how we’re able to discriminate objects. And I might throw in an extra example on causality.

Let’s start with one of my favorite examples, this comes from the work of Steve Levinson and John Haviland, who first started describing languages that have the following amazing property: there are some languages that don’t use words like “left” and “right.” Instead, everything in the language is laid out in absolute space. That means you have to say things like, “There is an ant on your northwest leg,” Or “can you move the cup to the south southeast a little bit?” Now to speak a language like this, you have to stay oriented. You have to always know which way you’re facing. And it’s not just that you have to stay oriented in the moment, all your memories of your past have to be oriented as well, so that you can say things like “Oh, I must have left my glasses to the southwest of the telephone.” That is a memory that you have to be able to generate. You have to have represented your experience in absolute space with cardinal directions.

What Steve Levinson and John Haviland found is that folks who speak languages like this indeed stay oriented remarkably well. There are languages like this around the world; they’re in Australia, they’re in China, they’re in South America. Folks who speak these languages, even young kids, are able to orient really well.

I had the opportunity to work with a group like this in Australia in collaboration with Alice Gaby. This was an Aboriginal group, the Kuuk Thaayorre. One of my first experiences there was standing next to a five year old girl. I asked her the same question that I’ve asked many eminent scientists and professors, rooms full of scholars in America. I ask everyone, “Close your eyes, and now point southeast.” When I ask people to do this, usually they laugh because they think, “well, that’s a silly question. How am I supposed to know that?” Often a lot of people refuse to point. They don’t know which way it is. When people do point, it takes a while, and they point in every possible direction. I usually don’t know which way southeast is myself, but that doesn’t preclude me from knowing that not all of the possible given answers are correct, because people point in every possible direction.

But here I am standing next to a five year old girl in Pormpuraaw, in this Aboriginal community, and I ask for her to point southeast, and she’s able to do it without hesitation, and she’s able to do it correctly. That’s the case for people who live in this community generally. That’s just a normal thing to be able to do. I had to take out a compass to make sure that she was correct, because I couldn’t remember. [Continue reading…]

First published at War in Context

More by Paul Woodward on Beyond Meds

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