Understanding Thoughts Through Language
Christina Kompanijec English 200 Argumentative essay: draft four If asked which cognitive ability you would miss the most if it were taken away, the majority of people would respond with the obvious choices of sight or hearing, but how many people would think about our sense of language? Language affects our lives in ways that we do not often realize. In the essay “How Language Shapes Thought” Lera Boroditsky argues that many of our cognitive abilities are enhanced, or hindered depending on the fundamental structure of our system of language.
I found that Boroditsky used much of her own research in order to support her claims that direction, time and gender are concepts largely affected by the structural system of our language. Overall I found Boroditsky’s arguments to be sound and thorough. I agree with her claims that language shapes thought. When visiting a small town in northern Australia, Boroditsky came to realize that the residents had an impeccable sense of direction; contrasting to that of the American scholars she repeated the experiment with back in the United States (Boroditsky 63).
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Boroditsky reached the conclusion that direction is one of many cognitive aspects that are largely shaped by language. I found Boroditsky’s theories hard to refute as she backed them up with many hard facts. Boroditsky furthers her credibility through the acknowledgement of previous flaws within the theory, as seen in the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis which lacked any major empirical evidence. Boroditsky is able to show the importance of a language’s structure and the how it impacts the meanings and thoughts behind the words that are used. Suppose I want to tell you that I saw Uncle Vanya on 42nd Street. In Mian, a language spoken in Papua New Guinea, the verb I used would reveal whether the event happened just now, yesterday or in the distant past, whereas in Indonesian, the verb wouldn’t even give away whether it had already happened or was still coming up. And in Piraha, a language spoken in the Amazon, I couldn’t say “42nd,” because there are no words for exact numbers, just words for “few” and “many”(Boroditsky 64) The amount of information conveyed by a speaker is greatly varied depending on the system of the language in se. Taking this thought process further, in the case of Piraha, without having a way to verbalize the idea of a certain number besides generalizing , would it be that far of a stretch to argue that the people of the Piraha language have no concept of specific numbers, at least on a larger scale? Without having a way to verbalize the numbers it would grow increasingly difficult to visualize an amount of something. If given two separate groups of apples, one containing thirty apples, the other thirty-one, the people of the Piraha language would have no way of telling the two groups apart.
This would have large impacts on their culture, specifically any aspect of life dealing in trade of any other type of economics. Boroditsky believes that changes within language can also alter a person’s perception of the world. This was one piece of Boroditsky’s essay that I partially disagreed with; I believe that once a person has a solid understanding of one language in particular their thoughts tend to process in the structure of that language. In the case of English and French or Spanish, the structure of a sentence may differ, for example in English the adjective precedes the noun while in French the adjective follows the noun.
This is a difference between languages that does not affect the meaning that is being conveyed. Le chien rouge, still translates to “the brown dog”. I feel as if Boroditsky should place a larger emphasis on the fact that her research shows that language effected people who were taught new shades of color which their native language had no equivalent to. Time is another aspect of our lives that is largely dictated by language, different cultures have different ways of understanding time.
In a language system that does not use tenses to modify verbs to indicate time, or the chronological order of events, more information would be necessary in order to convey the concept of something as simple as “I went to the store before work. ” Boroditsky also explored this idea by experimenting with the cognitive thought process behind the organization of time within different cultures. “English speakers given this task will arrange the cards so that time proceeds from left to right. Hebrew speakers will tend to lay out the cards from right to left.
This shows that writing direction in a language influences how we organize time” (Boroditsky 64). Similar to time, gender is another concept that is altered by language. Many languages use articles or some other classification to call an object either masculine or feminine. This changes the way that items are viewed or described within a culture, even though a table or pencil is the same regardless of the labels placed on it by humans, our perception of the object is changed by our own words for the object in question.
Many base concepts that we use in our everyday lives to categorize other people and objects are impacted by this idea that Boroditsky is supporting. Boroditsky’s argument for the theory that language alters our perception of the world was well made; she gave clear evidence that supported different parts of her claims. I agree that language has the ability to shape thought and actively alters the understanding that we have over other concepts and objects. Work Cited Boroditsky, Lera. “How Language Shapes Thought. ” Psych. stanford. edu. N. p. , 2011. Web.