English speakers tend to see time on a horizontal plane: The best years are ahead; he puts his past behind him. Speakers of Mandarin tend to see new events emerging like a spring of water, with the past above and the future below.
Those are findings from cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky, who is showing that language can shape how we think. Consider space, for one:
About a third of the world’s languages do not rely on words for right and left. Instead, their speakers use what are called absolute directions — north, south, east and west. For everything. In Australia, for example, if Tara VanDerveer were giving a basketball clinic to the aboriginal Thaayorre in their native language, she’d have to order her players to dribble up the south side of the court, fake east, go west, then make a layup on the west side of the basket.
One implication of Boroditsky’s research is its relationship to what psychologists call “framing:”
In a paper due to be published this year, she and her team used the infamous 2004 Super Bowl halftime show in which singer Justin Timberlake seemed to pull off the front of Janet Jackson’s costume, revealing her breast. Timberlake later described the incident as a “wardrobe malfunction” … Even when test subjects saw the same video of the event, and even when they had read and heard about the incident prior to the study, Boroditsky reports that when the researchers described the event then asked the subjects to assess a financial liability to Justin Timberlake, their responses were divided. The group that heard an “agentive” description, in which “Timberlake ripped the costume,” recommended a much higher fine than the group that was told “the costume ripped.” According to Boroditsky, “Linguistic framing affected people’s judgments of blame and financial liability in all conditions; language mattered whether it was presented before, after or without video evidence.”
The questions are:
Does the fact that one language tends to play the blame game while the other does not mean speakers of those languages think differently about what happened? If so, what might linguistic differences tell us about cognition, perception and memory — and with what implications for such perennial debates as the influence of nature versus nurture?
Don’t miss Lera’s research lab, whimsically named Cognation, where you can sing along to the Cognation National Anthem, or her graduate students, the Cognatives.