Each language has a toolkit to help us learn what to pay attention to.
Boroditsky studies how the languages we use influence the way we think. And she’s come up with some startling examples.
For instance, the Kuuk Thaayorre people of northern Australia don’t have words for our concepts of relative location: right, left, forward and back. Instead, when they refer to a location, they always use cardinal directions like north and south. So, they say things like “there is an ant on your southeast leg.” Not surprisingly, these people always know which way is north, even without technology like a compass. That’s a handy skill for a nomadic forager to have.
She has also studied the way languages with grammatical gender influence how people think about everyday objects. For example, the noun “bridge” is feminine in German, but masculine in Spanish. When asked to describe a bridge, German speakers are more likely to use adjectives like beautiful and elegant, while Spanish speakers are more likely to use words like strong and sturdy.
It’s not that languages determine what we think, she notes. People after all create languages. Instead, it’s a two-way street: thought creates language and language creates thought.
(Listening hint: skip the first eight minutes of the interview, which is a long-winded introduction by interviewer Joshua Landy, a Stanford professor of French.)