Can Language Influence Our Perception of Reality?   

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Can Language Influence Our Perception of Reality? 

New research suggests that subtle linguistic differences can frame our approaches to difficult problems— and even affect our views on space and time

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Photo by Ruthie Aviles.

During the first quarter of this year, the U.S. economy grew a dismal 0.1 percent, well below predictions. Depending on which pundit you listen to, this was a sign of either a stalling economy or an ailing one. The choice of words is more important than you might think. So important, in fact, that word choice can actually affect not just how we describe the economy, but also how we try to fix it.

Subtle linguistic differences and figures of speech can frame our approaches to difficult problems, beyond just the economy. That’s what research from the University of California, San Diego, is showing. Choose your metaphors carefully, people. They do more than just describe a problem—they help shape the solution.

Lera Boroditsky, associate professor of cognitive science at UC San Diego has spent years examining how different languages might encourage different cognitive abilities. A growing body of evidence suggests that a person’s mother tongue shapes the way they think about many aspects of the world, including space and time. The results, Boroditsky says, have broad implications in the spheres of politics and law.

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In the case of the economy, the word “stalled” implies the need for a quick solution. “We know what it means to jumpstart a car—we know that a short-term infusion of energy will help get everything restored back to normal,” Boroditsky says. “When we use that analogy we’re implying that a short term financial stimulus will help us get the economy going again.”

On the other hand, when the economy is “ailing,” like a sick patient, it requires constant, long-term care. The difference is crucial.

Or consider a city with a high crime rate: Is crime a beast, or is it a virus?

“In the beast case, people say, ‘Bring in more police, harsher jail sentences’—the kinds of things that you would imagine doing for a real beast. Put out a hunting party and cage and kill it,” Boroditsky says. “Whereas for a virus people come up with more preventative solutions—diagnose the root cause of the problem, inoculate the population, improve education, deal with economic problems in the community so people are not as susceptible to crime.”

In a series of experiments by Boroditsky and Paul Thibodeau, test subjects were asked to read short paragraphs about rising crime rates in a fictional city and answer questions about the city. The researchers then assessed how people answered the questions based on whether crime was described as a beast or a virus. In one study, 71 percent of the participants called for more enforcement when they read crime described as a beast. When the metaphor was changed to virus, the number dropped to 54 percent.

If changing the way you speak your language affects thinking, what happens when you switch languages altogether? Opinions on the subject date back centuries (Charlemagne once said, “to have a second language is to have a second soul”). In the 1930s, two American linguists, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf popularized the hypothesis that the languages we speak may shape the ways we think.

There are some 7,000 languages spoken in the world, and they exhibit tremendous variance. Boroditsky and her colleagues’ research has shown that language—from verb tenses to gender to metaphors—can shape the most fundamental dimensions of human cognition, including space, time, causality, and our relationships with others.

“I was always interested in how humans become so smart. How do we build complex knowledge? How are we able to think about things that go far beyond our physical experience?” she says. “It became clear quite early that there wasn’t any way to explain how we build such complex and sophisticated knowledge unless you look at patterns in language.”

For a striking example of how language shapes thought, Boroditsky points to Aboriginal languages in Australia that don’t use terms like “left” and “right.” Instead, they use cardinal directions—east, west, etc. “There is an ant on your southwest leg,” a speaker might say.

Studies have found that speakers of such languages are remarkably good at staying oriented, even when inside a building. When asked to lay out a series of cards that included earlier and later events, members of the community will arrange the cards from east to west (the direction of the sun) no matter which direction they are facing. English speakers, meanwhile, will lay them out left to right (the way English is written), while Hebrew speakers will lay the cards out right to left (the direction of Hebrew script).

There are practical implications to better understanding how language shapes the way we perceive reality. In a courtroom, for example, the way in which English, Spanish or Japanese speakers recall events can be dramatically different—which, of course, can be candy to lawyers.  

English speakers usually describe events in terms of agents doing things: “John broke the vase.” Speakers of Spanish or Japanese are less likely to mention the agent when describing an accident: “The vase broke.” These differences can affect how speakers of different languages actually remember the same event. In one study, speakers of English, Spanish, and Japanese watched videos of two people popping balloons, breaking eggs, and intentionally or unintentionally spilling drinks. When asked later who broke what, speakers of Spanish and Japanese did not remember who was responsible for the accidents as well as English speakers did. But they had no problem identifying who was responsible for intentional events, for which their language would mention the agent.

Boroditsky is currently looking at metaphors used to describe economic inequality. She’s trying to understand whether there are differences that result from describing inequality as a “gap” or a “chasm,” or the result of a race—winning or falling behind in a race—or climbing and falling off a ladder.

“We’re asking if these metaphors actually have different consequences,” Boroditsky says. “We use metaphor because issues like crime or the economy are hard to think about. They are complex systems that we’re talking about. None of us has a complete understanding of the systems, so we draw on knowledge of what’s familiar to us.”

It is, to use an aptly fraught metaphor, a rich vein of inquiry. 

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