Ep. 25: How languages change how we think and can give us super powers
Today, Lera Boroditsky, Professor of Cognitive Science at UCSD on the On the Edge with Andrew Gold podcast. She’s a really big deal in the languages and cognitive science worlds, having taught at MIT and Stanford. and you can find her Ted Talk here. Her teaching and her research focus on the way we form thought, the way we think, and the way language affects how we think. If any of you have seen the movie Arrival (trailer), you’ll know what I mean – because it’s a great example of how learning the alien language allows you to think different. I won’t spoil it, but the film and it’s original short story by Ted Chiang just blew my mind.
Scientists in the real world haven’t encountered anything quite so sci-fi-like – but Dr. Boroditsky has nailed down certain characteristics in the 7,000 languages around the world that make its native speakers think in different ways. For example, she engrained herself with one community - the Kuuk Thaayorre - where they use cardinal points, so south, west, east and north, instead of left and right. It means they have an internal map of compass points – something we never thought humans had the ability to do. Other examples she’ll talk about include the way we see colour, the way we count and use maths, and the way gender is influenced by language. For example, the French bridge Le Pont is masculine, and they therefore tend to describe it as imposing and strong, while Germans Die Brücke is feminine, so it’s seen as elegant and fragile. While these gender stereotypes might be a little outdated, they give us an insight into the way words can have an effect on meaning.
As many of you know, language is one of my biggest passions. I speak five, although I cheat by including English – the others are Spanish, French, German and Portuguese. And one of the things that has fascinated me is how I find myself taking on a new personality with each language. When I’m in a group of French people I become this low-voiced suave, philosophical guy, while in Argentine Spanish, I take on an Italian inflection, and I’m a bit more risqué, I’m singing my words, and that has to change your personality – not only in how you’re perceived by others, but in how you think while communicating in these other languages. I really feel like I become another person, and you can see me using these languages in my work in my showreel.
So that’s why I’ve been absolutely fascinated by Dr. Boroditsky’s work, and by a book a recently read by Guy Deutscher, called Through the Language Glass. Dr. Boroditsky talks to me all about those things, and also touches on things like enforced language change – such as gender-neutral pronouns and other social-justice changes – and talks a little about psychopaths that she might just be one. I think she was joking, but there’s some truth in the notion that high-performing people might just be some form of sociopath. If you’re into that, check out my earlier episodes with M.E. Thomas the female Mormon psychopath, and Mary Turner Thomson, whose husband was a psychopath and a bigamist.
Please make sure to share this podcast, follow me on andrewgold_ok on Twitter and Instagram – I could do with more followers! And check out such other podcasts of mine as the hypnotherapist Chris Hughes who explains how hypnotism works and is brilliant, historian Dr. Tessa Dunlop (really funny episode) and Helen Lewis on woke feminism.