Lost in Translation

Lera Boroditsky, Lost in Translation, The Wall Street Journal, July 23, 2010
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Language impacts our thinking; how we see, understand, and interpret events; and our relationship to time, space, and causality.

That language influences our thinking has been demonstrated in studies of Russian language speakers, indigenous tribes, the Piraha, and Spanish and Japanese language speakers. Because the Russian language has more words for light and dark blues, Russian speakers have greater ability to visually discriminate shades of blue. Because some indigenous tribes use “north, south, east and west” instead of “left” and “right” to indicate direction, members of these tribes have great spatial orientation. Because the Piraha use inexact terms such as “few” and “many” instead of actual numbers to quantify, they are not able to keep track of exact quantities. Because Spanish and Japanese languages don’t have agents of causality of accidents, ("The vase broke itself," rather than "John broke the vase.") they are less able to remember the agent of the accident. In a study comparing cross-linguistic eye-witness memory of Spanish, Japanese, and English speakers, subjects watched videos of people doing something intentionally or accidentally. When asked to recall who did the action, Spanish and Japanese speakers were able to remember the agents of intentional events as well as English speakers because their language would mention the agent of intentional events; however, they were not able to remember the agents of accidental events as well as English speakers.

Language also influences our ability to orient ourselves in physical environments as well as how we use “spatial knowledge to build many other more complex or abstract representations including time, number, musical pitch, kinship relations, morality and emotions.”

In one study, subjects were asked to arrange pictures in a temporal order, in two separate sittings, each time facing in a different cardinal direction, but they were not told in which cardinal direction they were seated. In both sittings, the English speakers arranged time from left to right-the direction that English is written, and the Hebrew speakers arranged from right to left-the direction the Hebrew is written, regardless of the cardinal direction in which they were seated. However, the Pormpuraawans, arranged time from east to west regardless of the cardinal direction in which they were seated. “That is, seated facing south, time went left to right. When facing north, right to left. When facing east, toward the body…The Pormpuraawans not only knew that already, but they also spontaneously used this spatial orientation to construct their representations of time.”

Language patterns also demonstrate “a culture’s dispositions and priorities. For example, English sentence structures focus on agents, and in our criminal-justice system, justice has been done when we've found the transgressor and punished him or her accordingly (rather than finding the victims and restituting appropriately, an alternative approach to justice). So does the language shape cultural values, or does the influence go the other way, or both?”

The language “we speak not only reflect or express our thoughts, but also shapes the very thoughts we wish to express. The structures that exist in our languages profoundly shape how we construct reality.”