How language shapes the way we think | Lera Boroditsky

So, I’ll be speaking to you
using language … because I can. This is one these magical abilities
that we humans have. We can transmit really complicated
thoughts to one another. So what I’m doing right now is,
I’m making sounds with my mouth as I’m exhaling. I’m making tones and hisses and puffs, and those are creating
air vibrations in the air. Those air vibrations are traveling to you, they’re hitting your eardrums, and then your brain takes
those vibrations from your eardrums and transforms them into thoughts. I hope. (Laughter) I hope that’s happening. So because of this ability,
we humans are able to transmit our ideas across vast reaches of space and time. We’re able to transmit
knowledge across minds. I can put a bizarre new idea
in your mind right now. I could say, “Imagine a jellyfish waltzing in a library while thinking about quantum mechanics.” (Laughter) Now, if everything has gone
relatively well in your life so far, you probably haven’t had
that thought before. (Laughter) But now I’ve just made you think it, through language. Now of course, there isn’t just
one language in the world, there are about 7,000 languages
spoken around the world. And all the languages differ
from one another in all kinds of ways. Some languages have different sounds, they have different vocabularies, and they also have different structures — very importantly, different structures. That begs the question: Does the language we speak
shape the way we think? Now, this is an ancient question. People have been speculating
about this question forever. Charlemagne, Holy Roman emperor, said, “To have a second language
is to have a second soul” — strong statement
that language crafts reality. But on the other hand,
Shakespeare has Juliet say, “What’s in a name? A rose by any other name
would smell as sweet.” Well, that suggests that maybe
language doesn’t craft reality. These arguments have gone
back and forth for thousands of years. But until recently,
there hasn’t been any data to help us decide either way. Recently, in my lab
and other labs around the world, we’ve started doing research, and now we have actual scientific data
to weigh in on this question. So let me tell you about
some of my favorite examples. I’ll start with an example
from an Aboriginal community in Australia that I had the chance to work with. These are the Kuuk Thaayorre people. They live in Pormpuraaw
at the very west edge of Cape York. What’s cool about Kuuk Thaayorre is, in Kuuk Thaayorre, they don’t use
words like “left” and “right,” and instead, everything
is in cardinal directions: north, south, east and west. And when I say everything,
I really mean everything. You would say something like, “Oh, there’s an ant
on your southwest leg.” Or, “Move your cup
to the north-northeast a little bit.” In fact, the way that you say “hello”
in Kuuk Thaayorre is you say, “Which way are you going?” And the answer should be, “North-northeast in the far distance. How about you?” So imagine as you’re walking
around your day, every person you greet, you have to report your heading direction. (Laughter) But that would actually get you
oriented pretty fast, right? Because you literally
couldn’t get past “hello,” if you didn’t know
which way you were going. In fact, people who speak languages
like this stay oriented really well. They stay oriented better
than we used to think humans could. We used to think that humans
were worse than other creatures because of some biological excuse: “Oh, we don’t have magnets
in our beaks or in our scales.” No; if your language and your culture
trains you to do it, actually, you can do it. There are humans around the world
who stay oriented really well. And just to get us in agreement about how different this is
from the way we do it, I want you all to close
your eyes for a second and point southeast. (Laughter) Keep your eyes closed. Point. OK, so you can open your eyes. I see you guys pointing there,
there, there, there, there … I don’t know which way it is myself — (Laughter) You have not been a lot of help. (Laughter) So let’s just say the accuracy
in this room was not very high. This is a big difference in cognitive
ability across languages, right? Where one group — very
distinguished group like you guys — doesn’t know which way is which, but in another group, I could ask a five-year-old
and they would know. (Laughter) There are also really big differences
in how people think about time. So here I have pictures
of my grandfather at different ages. And if I ask an English speaker
to organize time, they might lay it out this way, from left to right. This has to do with writing direction. If you were a speaker of Hebrew or Arabic, you might do it going
in the opposite direction, from right to left. But how would the Kuuk Thaayorre, this Aboriginal group I just
told you about, do it? They don’t use words
like “left” and “right.” Let me give you hint. When we sat people facing south, they organized time from left to right. When we sat them facing north, they organized time from right to left. When we sat them facing east, time came towards the body. What’s the pattern? East to west, right? So for them, time doesn’t actually
get locked on the body at all, it gets locked on the landscape. So for me, if I’m facing this way, then time goes this way, and if I’m facing this way,
then time goes this way. I’m facing this way, time goes this way — very egocentric of me to have
the direction of time chase me around every time I turn my body. For the Kuuk Thaayorre,
time is locked on the landscape. It’s a dramatically different way
of thinking about time. Here’s another really smart human trick. Suppose I ask you
how many penguins are there. Well, I bet I know how you’d solve
that problem if you solved it. You went, “One, two, three,
four, five, six, seven, eight.” You counted them. You named each one with a number, and the last number you said
was the number of penguins. This is a little trick
that you’re taught to use as kids. You learn the number list
and you learn how to apply it. A little linguistic trick. Well, some languages don’t do this, because some languages
don’t have exact number words. They’re languages that don’t have
a word like “seven” or a word like “eight.” In fact, people who speak
these languages don’t count, and they have trouble
keeping track of exact quantities. So, for example, if I ask you
to match this number of penguins to the same number of ducks, you would be able to do that by counting. But folks who don’t have
that linguistic trick can’t do that. Languages also differ in how
they divide up the color spectrum — the visual world. Some languages have
lots of words for colors, some have only a couple words,
“light” and “dark.” And languages differ in where they put
boundaries between colors. So, for example, in English,
there’s a word for blue that covers all of the colors
that you can see on the screen, but in Russian, there isn’t a single word. Instead, Russian speakers
have to differentiate between light blue, “goluboy,” and dark blue, “siniy.” So Russians have this lifetime
of experience of, in language, distinguishing these two colors. When we test people’s ability
to perceptually discriminate these colors, what we find is that
Russian speakers are faster across this linguistic boundary. They’re faster to be able
to tell the difference between a light and dark blue. And when you look at people’s brains
as they’re looking at colors — say you have colors shifting slowly
from light to dark blue — the brains of people who use
different words for light and dark blue will give a surprised reaction
as the colors shift from light to dark, as if, “Ooh, something
has categorically changed,” whereas the brains
of English speakers, for example, that don’t make
this categorical distinction, don’t give that surprise, because nothing is categorically changing. Languages have all kinds
of structural quirks. This is one of my favorites. Lots of languages have grammatical gender; every noun gets assigned a gender,
often masculine or feminine. And these genders differ across languages. So, for example, the sun is feminine
in German but masculine in Spanish, and the moon, the reverse. Could this actually have any
consequence for how people think? Do German speakers think of the sun
as somehow more female-like, and the moon somehow more male-like? Actually, it turns out that’s the case. So if you ask German and Spanish speakers
to, say, describe a bridge, like the one here — “bridge” happens to be grammatically
feminine in German, grammatically masculine in Spanish — German speakers are more likely
to say bridges are “beautiful,” “elegant” and stereotypically feminine words. Whereas Spanish speakers
will be more likely to say they’re “strong” or “long,” these masculine words. (Laughter) Languages also differ in how
they describe events, right? You take an event like this, an accident. In English, it’s fine to say,
“He broke the vase.” In a language like Spanish, you might be more likely
to say, “The vase broke,” or, “The vase broke itself.” If it’s an accident, you wouldn’t say
that someone did it. In English, quite weirdly,
we can even say things like, “I broke my arm.” Now, in lots of languages, you couldn’t use that construction
unless you are a lunatic and you went out
looking to break your arm — (Laughter) and you succeeded. If it was an accident,
you would use a different construction. Now, this has consequences. So, people who speak different languages
will pay attention to different things, depending on what their language
usually requires them to do. So we show the same accident
to English speakers and Spanish speakers, English speakers will remember who did it, because English requires you
to say, “He did it; he broke the vase.” Whereas Spanish speakers might be
less likely to remember who did it if it’s an accident, but they’re more likely to remember
that it was an accident. They’re more likely
to remember the intention. So, two people watch the same event, witness the same crime, but end up remembering
different things about that event. This has implications, of course,
for eyewitness testimony. It also has implications
for blame and punishment. So if you take English speakers and I just show you
someone breaking a vase, and I say, “He broke the vase,”
as opposed to “The vase broke,” even though you can witness it yourself, you can watch the video, you can watch the crime against the vase, you will punish someone more, you will blame someone more
if I just said, “He broke it,” as opposed to, “It broke.” The language guides
our reasoning about events. Now, I’ve given you a few examples of how language can profoundly
shape the way we think, and it does so in a variety of ways. So language can have big effects, like we saw with space and time, where people can lay out space and time in completely different
coordinate frames from each other. Language can also have
really deep effects — that’s what we saw
with the case of number. Having count words in your language, having number words, opens up the whole world of mathematics. Of course, if you don’t count,
you can’t do algebra, you can’t do any of the things that would be required
to build a room like this or make this broadcast, right? This little trick of number words
gives you a stepping stone into a whole cognitive realm. Language can also have
really early effects, what we saw in the case of color. These are really simple,
basic, perceptual decisions. We make thousands of them all the time, and yet, language is getting in there and fussing even with these tiny little
perceptual decisions that we make. Language can have really broad effects. So the case of grammatical gender
may be a little silly, but at the same time,
grammatical gender applies to all nouns. That means language can shape
how you’re thinking about anything that can be
named by a noun. That’s a lot of stuff. And finally, I gave you an example
of how language can shape things that have personal weight to us — ideas like blame and punishment
or eyewitness memory. These are important things
in our daily lives. Now, the beauty of linguistic diversity
is that it reveals to us just how ingenious and how flexible
the human mind is. Human minds have invented
not one cognitive universe, but 7,000 — there are 7,000 languages
spoken around the world. And we can create many more — languages, of course, are living things, things that we can hone
and change to suit our needs. The tragic thing is that we’re losing
so much of this linguistic diversity all the time. We’re losing about one language a week, and by some estimates, half of the world’s languages
will be gone in the next hundred years. And the even worse news is that right now, almost everything we know about
the human mind and human brain is based on studies of usually American
English-speaking undergraduates at universities. That excludes almost all humans. Right? So what we know about the human mind
is actually incredibly narrow and biased, and our science has to do better. I want to leave you
with this final thought. I’ve told you about how speakers
of different languages think differently, but of course, that’s not about
how people elsewhere think. It’s about how you think. It’s how the language that you speak
shapes the way that you think. And that gives you the opportunity to ask, “Why do I think the way that I do?” “How could I think differently?” And also, “What thoughts do I wish to create?” Thank you very much. (Applause)

Comments 99

  • So imagine the destructive power of colonization. Not only for the country but for the world. Having other ways of thinking is what will really make new possibilities arise to humanity and once you force people to learn a foreign language and forget the mother tongue is also to make them forget the past and think differently about the future.They robbed their riches, their raw materials and even THE WAY OF THINKING. In Brazil we speak Portuguese nowadays, of course very differently from European version and with many mixtures of the old Tupi and Guarani language because of the distance, all foods, animals and even words that were exclusively Brazilian and of course all the culture that were in Brazil yet some things are different but we were still molded to think like Europeans or molded to think for exemple that having clear skin like Europeans is more beautiful than the dark/black one, denying our roots.We can not naturally recognize our beauty because that too has been stolen from us and that's just one aspect of many that we can see in the Brazilian daily life.

  • this is great. i wish someone talks about the nonhuman animal languages, too.

  • 💓💓💓

  • cette excellente "video "relative au langage ayant disparu de mon listing ;elle a été replacée ici……avis personnel +++++++++++

  • Indeed the inuits have 17 adjectives for "white". But if language was performative (as she claims) then it would make that they have snow. Yet it is the opposite : it is because they have snow that they have 17 adjectives. It may influence some thoughts. But it does not make reality. It's like the POlitically Correct. It is the ideology of the post-modern who want to go always further and faster but do not know where we go.

  • very useful..

  • Here in Brazil many people insert English words in their daily conversations, with terrible pronunciation. Of course, only Brazilians understand this "English". But the worst part of this is that I always saw this kind of practice as a self-disrespect those Brazilians have with themselves. Now, I have a theory that back me up. I might say, unfortunately.

  • The most inspirational speech to encourage students who are studying multilanguages

  • In Hebrew the moon and the sun can be both male and female.

  • I’m a writer and a translator, so I really see the nature of words in each language
    that when I decide to write something I’ve got to choose first what language I will use
    because that totally makes different of how you tell a story!
    And sometimes I don’t even want to translate them back to my mother language 😀

  • This is beautiful story. I wish I could say my story..

  • I got data in my brain.

  • and i guess when u aren’t fluent in that one language you’re conversing with, no one gets you and that sucks in this sensitive society.

  • Learning other languages have had some advantages too… So, you can meet beautiful girls like her!! 😍

  • she really needs to distinguish her dress from the interior design of the TED platform.

  • What about: How the way we think shapes the way we speak?…and vice-versa. How the way this affects reality… and how other's realities affect the way we think and and speak, and this, the way we feel and how this affects the our thinking and behaviour and so on….then: How everything affects everything and therefore everything affects nothing and nothing affect everything, making this pointless because the only action that matters is your awareness of how pointless this is. Therefore go do some meditation and stop watching videos.

  • India has got 122 Major and 1599 other languages. In Bangalore, we speak at least 2 languages, understand 3 . You listen to at least 30 other languages from other parts of India. People switch between languages very easily.

  • Sanskrit or Saṃskṛtam as called in India, is a very articulate language. One can say precisely, what you want to say. Grammar was perfected about 2000 years ago.

  • Very absurd remarks indeed. Like einstein she is trying to say something else and she cannot speak the truth.

  • Никогда не задумывался о том, что в английском языке нет альтернативы русскому слову "голубой".

  • great . I really loved
    im GUINE -bissau
    its a useful video

  • it´s very important to know how translate

  • e.g. English to Portugues

  • Dark blue color in Russian lg doesn't mean blue. Blue is blue, light blue you mentioned right, but dark blue is translated as dark blue ( тёмно синий) 😉

  • "Married with kids" is illegal, here in Finland atleast. We are married with our spouses, and we may HAVE kids.

  • This has helped me realize I don't think, we think.

  • In English we do the same with pink and red like the russians do with blue. A pink is actually a" light red" or a red would be a "dark pink."

  • Sometimes in Mexican restrooms they use an image or something of the moon or of the sun to tell which one is the female's or the male's one. La Luna for women and el sol for men. So it would be pretty confusing to have a language where these words have the opposite gender and to be in that situation.

  • Orwell's 1984 shows how controlling language can shape perceptions and beliefs. Our colleges and universities are proving this every day and it scares me. A lot.

  • Gramatical gender is splitting society and fueling ignorance charged with hate. Its how the languages that one speaks, shape the way reality is perceived.

  • i speak world first language "Tamil"

  • 1:42 "…that begs the question…"

    Funny, I wasn't expecting a language expert to use that phrase to mean "that raises the question".

  • Even tough this is one year old. I've got the feeling that the reasoning is somehow backwards.
    It may be true, that language can shape the way we think, but I guess that another chain of thinking is way more true. At first realitiy is as realitiy is, you may not change it by simply stating it is different than it is. (Which implies that reality does not change, despite your language changing). Now, you evolve your thinking according to your reality – so to speak, your surroundings, your environment. And finally you evolve a language to describe your environment. Therefore: Your environment shapes what you deem important, what you think and your thoughts shape your language.

    This seems to me way more in accordance to evolution than the chain of thoughts presented in the talk.

    And I am not saying that language does not change your thoughs (which still may be true) I am just stating, that the reverse seems more reasonable and rational to me.

  • She is so beautiful, in any language!

  • Who is she?

  • sad thing is statistics shows that native english countries around the world are the countries with less number of people speaking at least a second language comfortably, all you need to see how sad this really is, is to check the Eurpean stats, while every continental European country having from 75% to 99% of their population able to speak a second language the UK is around 35% and I'm don't know for sure, but i've got pretty strong hunch those are either immigrants or the celtic citizens that see english as their foreign language while the celtic as their native one or the other way around, they see the english as the native and the celtic as the second language.

  • I speak English as a second language for over 26 years. I can fairly say it is very poor in every grammatical aspect. I still feel I can't express myself 100%, even when I say sth I really meant to say, I don't feel it. Something is missing.

  • linguistic diversity will soon be gone and good riddance because if you can't speak english you can't study

  • dont do this just sick air vibrations

  • I speak English, Turkish and Arabic. The language i speak affects my thoughts and behaivours. For example, when i speak Arabic i feel – most of the times – the warm sense of my religion (islam) and also i do feel myself in a religious personality.

  • As someone who studied another language she delivered this talk very well

  • Neurolinguistic programming

  • I love the example of the vase being accidentally broken. Saying: El quebro el florero (He broke the vase) would be too accusing, It would imply he did on purpose. We are more likely to say: Quebraron el florero (they broke the vase) That deflects the blame from the person who did it by accident.

  • Great speech 🙂

  • language shapes the way we think ? No it does not….It is the Aptitude that shapes the thinking….DO YOU HAVE A BAD ATTIUDE OR A GOOD ATTIUDE ….THAT IS WHAT MAKES US THINK

  • Speaking about Sun and Moon. my language (Romanian) uses for them the same genders as in Spanish. when i was studying German, i was asked to write a short fairy-tale. Based on some old Ro legends, i wrote about a sad love story between the sun and a fair princess, putting "Er (he)", whenever i wanted to replace "Die Sonne". the teacher had to correct all the "Er"-s and put "Sie (she)" instead.
    when i read my corrected composition, it sounded unintentionally LGBT. lol.

  • Is she pretty-or beautiful

  • Great presentation, but her beauty was so distracting I could barely hear what she was saying.

  • Really,scientists from all over the world are working on what you were talking about?

  • I'm from Brazil, beautiful vídeo!

  • I can relate to what she is saying. I speak 4 languages(Spanish, English, Japanese, Portuguese) 4 languages, 4 different cultures and I feel I’m a different person when I speak in each language.

  • I think I’m truly in love

  • Absolutely love this video so-so much. It's amazingly interesting and inspiring!

  • As a linguist, I must say that this is the biggest pack of lies and anti-West propaganda I have ever seen.

  • Congrats on the presentation!
    Learning English?
    Irregular Verbs. The Ultimate Guide. / Amazon
    A book simple in form but rich in content!

  • I got shivers when she explained how time perception changed with language

  • รัก เลย

  • voice affects mind, is happening in HK.

  • In India, the least anyone speaks is three languages… irrespective of their schooling .. mother tongue, hindi and the local language of their place of work ..

  • Important and entertaining points about different languages and how we think. Well worth your time to watch.

  • 5:27 The sun sets in the west and rises in the east.

  • (around 6:58) Very true. In Chinese, I just need to mix a tint and a colour to make a word, but when learning English I find they don't do that in any way; the colours are instead derived from Greek/Latin/ancient roots or go nuts for some reason I don't know.

  • Very insightful. This takes me back to a heated debate between a Spanish and English colleague of mine surrounding the trial of a driver involved in an accident that resulted in the death of a pedestrian. The Spaniard said if it were in his country, the driver could be let go if it was proven that he did not cause the death intentionally. The Englishman however fervently believed that that the man was at least guilty of manslaughter because he had caused the death. The Spaniard just could not understand why the driver should be punished for a mistake. I had no idea their positions actually had a lot to do with language!

  • Second soul

  • She is brilliant speaker. Greetings from Czech republic. 🙂

  • Stinking Jew!

  • "There are about 7,000 languages spoken around the world"

    A typical example of the illiterate.

    Language is Universal and Intelligible, it is a biological given. Nobody speaks, thinks, or teaches language. It is a biological given to our species, the elements of which are not predicable of, so the myths concerning it are derived from dysfunctional minds.

    If the claim that there were more than one and that it can be taughtwere true, you could teach this biological, given and magically transform the inanimate, or even any species.

    Language is some one thing. Every thing is a relative constrained by correlatives. Language consists of two primitive elements, the unit, a Conjugate Binary Pair, and the intelligence to manipulate that unit in four distinct grammars.

    For those who are not so brain dead as most, and comprehend language as a biological given which is wholly impossible to teach and instead of chasing mythologies and would like to study factual grammar;

    Grammars are the method the life support system of the mind effects predictive behavior.

    Universal Language, Internet Archive. The pdf portfolio, Art of Prophecy.

    The comments on this are wholly bizarre.

  • i ❤ you

  • Trying hard to learn English ….environment and frnd circle plays an important part to learn anything…i don't have anyone around with whom i can practice…but my frnd is mirror and my phone. I learn things from youtube and practice in front of mirror… it's just the beginning of the journey ..language can change the personality ,the way we think and communicate….it widens the social circle and attract more people….Punjabi(India) is my mother tongue…but i guess English is way much more easier to learn….💕

  • I'm trying to speak in two languages English and German and I have a big problem with grammatic, but the computer helps me.

  • This lady is an amazing speaker!

  • 1:51 She confused something here…

    Charlemagne was ''just'' King of the francs, never holy roman emperor (That was Otto I., over hundred years after Charlemagne died.)

  • Nice dress

  • I m four lingual and I m confused

  • So amazing !

  • How dresses shape the way we look…

  • I learned Spanish first then English and then programming. I say my mom, even when I am speaking to my sisters because that is how Spanish people speak and think, and when I say it in English I still say my mom when I am speaking to my sisters, even though I know it is incorrect in English, my brain is programmed to think my mom, and just saying mom doesn't feel right. So I see it like this. If you have an alarm clock you can unplug it an set the time in eastern time, central time, or eastern time, but when you unplug it, it will always go back to the initial time set in the constructor 0:00. This goes to say, what you are taught first will be your core belief, and the longer you believe this the more engrained that belief will be.

  • Empathy is not a word.

  • very informative talk.. thank you for sharing 😉

  • The Arrival sent me here. Those were very masculine knowledge that I just acquired.

  • I like the visual presentation. I believe everything she is saying.

  • Out of topic this girl so hot anyway

  • Bro Wtf I Was Just Talking About This Fool 😵😵

  • Yea, now I'm tryin to watch with English subtitles for learn (E to E)it seems like live dictionary.

  • Her grandfather looks like a very young Nick Jonas!

  • Thank you a lot..

  • Doesn't this mean political correctness aka censorship of certain words makes us dumber? Or is it to control/manipulate our thoughts?

  • I speak persian , English , Spanish and Arabic , now i am working on my German for master degree in Germany

  • Language is another item lost to diversity. At first, they influence one another but inevitable a dominant language prevails with only vapors of the one lost remaining. We have seen this happen all over the world as one tribe or nation rises to dominate another.

  • Really interesting. However, I do not agree totally with Spanish-English comparison about the vase as English can be just as evasive as Spanish.

    The vase was broken. Se rompió la jarra./Rompieron la jarra.
    He broke the vase. (Él) rompió la jarra.

  • Dang she would love the movie The Arrival

  • She looks like Sandra Bullock to me

  • What a gift I have been given ! Arabic is my native language and I enjoy how accurate we can use it to describe complicated things.

  • This video is very Eurocentric and focused on white people and their language. As someone who belongs to an aboriginal ethnic group I can’t relate to this white woman constantly using ‘we’ when referring to white people.

  • رائعة وقمة الشرح والبيان

  • interesting

  • great speech indeed. But if you pay close attention the second picture of her grandfather looks like Nick Jonas

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