I recently read Dreaming in Hindi, Katherine Russell Rich’s memoir of her year in India learning Hindi. Rich intersperses quirky anecdotes of learning and culture shock with scientific insights about learning a second language. I was excited see her mention two of my favorite studies on language and thought.
Psychologists and philosophers have long debated whether language shapes the way we think. While the most drastic viewpoint – that thought can’t exist without language -- has fallen out of favor, psychologists still study more subtle effects.
The first study has to do with gender in language. Many languages assign genders to words. For example, in Spanish, the word for “key” is feminine, while the German word for” key” is masculine. Gender for the most part is arbitrary and varies from language to language, which allows for some interesting experiments.
Psychologist Lera Boroditsky and colleagues asked Spanish and German speakers to provide descriptive adjectives for different objects. Interestingly, people produced adjectives that were consistent with gender stereotypes. For example, German speakers described keys as hard, heavy, jagged, metal, and useful, while Spanish speakers described them as golden, intricate, little, lovely, and shiny. For the word “bridge,” which is feminine in German and masculine in Spanish, the opposite happened. Germans described bridges as beautiful, elegant, fragile, and peaceful, while Spanish speakers said they were big, dangerous, long, and strong.
(Methodological note: the masculinity or femininity of adjectives was determined by a separate group of English speakers, blind to the study’s purpose, who rated these adjectives on masculinity and femininity. It's kind of amusing to see which words received which rating.)
In a second experiment, Boroditsky looked at language and the conception of time. English speakers primarily speak of time in horizontal terms. For example, we talk about moving meetings forward, or pushing deadlines back. Mandarin speakers, on the other hand, use up/down metaphors as well. So a Mandarin speaker would refer to the previous week as “up week” and next week as “down week.”
Boroditsky performed an experiment to see whether priming people to think either vertically or horizontally would affect their ability to think about time. Participants first answered a question about horizontally or vertically placed objects. For example, they saw two worms in a row and had to say whether the black worm was in front. Or they’d see two vertically stacked balls and say whether the black ball was above the white ball. Then the participants answered a question about time (“ Does March come before April”, etc.).
They found that English speakers were quicker to answer questions about time after answering horizontal spatial questions, while Mandarin speakers were quicker after vertical spatial questions. This reminds me of the scaffolded mind idea, in which concrete experiences provide a way to understand abstract concepts.
What do these studies say to me as a writer? It's interesting to see how subtle aspects of language affect the way we think. It argues for thinking like poets and valuing each word were not just a dictionary meaning, but all the other layers of associations and meanings that come with it. I don’t think it’s worth obsessively wondering about subconscious associations, but it’s certainly something interesting to think about.
Note: Dreaming in Hindi was given to me as a review copy.
Boroditsky, L. (2001). Does Language Shape Thought?: Mandarin and English Speakers' Conceptions of Time Cognitive Psychology, 43 (1), 1-22 DOI: 10.1006/cogp.2001.0748