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Languages and the Way We Think - Talking with Lera Boroditsky

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Interview with Lera Boroditsky, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Stanford University and Editor in Chief of Frontiers in Cultural Psychology. She was the opening speaker at the annual statewide CATESOL conference held in Oakland in 2012.

Lera claims “Learning another language is not just a matter of learning to speak differently, it is also learning to think differently.” This connection between words and thoughts goes to the heart of teaching language, and poses questions for ESL teachers about cultural understanding.

ESL Insights: Growing up as you did speaking Russian, do you feel you are a different person when you speak a different language? Does your personality change?

Lera Boroditsky: I do feel different when speaking different languages. This is a very common experience for bilinguals to report.  For example, when I am speaking Russian, I feel more free to be non-literal (metaphorical or ironic) in what I say. Russian communicative culture values clarity and directness less than standard American culture does, but values cleverness and erudition more.

So if you asked me this question in Russian, you might not have gotten the simple direct answer I just gave, and instead something more clever, abstract or absurd.


ESL Insights:  Are there associations that go along with speaking in different languages? For example: you grew up in Russia, does that mean you feel more of a child when you speak the language?

Lera Boroditsky: Most of my experience speaking Russian was as a kid, living in Russia.  And most of my experience speaking English has been as an adult, with a job, living in the US. Switching from English to Russian certainly cues this big switch in context.  Viorica Marian at Northwestern University has shown through her research that bilinguals will recall different memories and espouse different values when they’re asked in one language versus another.  Language acts as a cue for cultural values and also for the contexts in which you speak those languages. This is definitely an experience I have.

ESL Insights:  You mentioned in the panel discussion (above) that some people are rather suspicious of you when you speak Russian. Why do you think that is?

Lera Boroditsky: We take language as a very important cue to identity. When most folks hear me speaking American English, they don’t detect a foreign accent, and as a result they assume I am American. For Americans, this is familiar and normal. If I believe you’re American, I can make lots of assumptions about what your upbringing was like, what your family is like, and so on.  I may well be wrong in the details, but on the whole you seem like a safe and familiar person. When people learn that I grew up in Russia, or they hear me speaking Russian, this breaks the illusion.  All of a sudden, I am no longer a familiar person – things they had assumed about me no longer apply. And of course, if I fooled them about being American, what other things am I hiding?

As an example of how strongly we associate language with identity, take this clever study.  Young kids were shown a video of a white boy speaking English. They were then shown videos of two adults. One was an African American man speaking English. The other was a white man speaking French. When the white English speaking boy grows up, which of these two adults is he more likely to be? The kids chose the African American English speaker over the white French speaker!  That is, they saw language as a stronger cue to identity than race.  This is a powerful indication of how strongly we respond to language as a cue to who a person is.

ESL Insights:  Do you notice different responses when you speak other languages – English? How would you characterize these responses?

Lera Boroditsky: People around the world have very different expectations about who is supposed to speak their language. English speakers expect everyone to speak English, so if you speak English fluently it comes as no surprise.

Elsewhere expectations are different. For example, I speak a little bit of Indonesian.  I should point out that my Indonesian is terrible, but Indonesians are very nice about it.  People who look like me are not supposed to speak any Indonesian. So when I am able to speak even a little bit, this comes as a pleasant surprise to folks, and I am treated like I have accomplished something truly great. The advantage for me is that I get to spy on what people say in Indonesian because most would never guess I can understand them. My spying has revealed that I am a very disappointing physical specimen as far as Indonesians are concerned. The most common visitors to Indonesia are fromAustralia and the Netherlands- lots of tall blond people.  So when they get a 5’3 brown-haired Russian, it is a big let down.

ESL Insights:  Do you dream in English or Russian?

Lera Boroditsky: It depends. If I am in Russia or have spent a few days speaking Russian, I will dream in Russian.  I find that my dreams can switch languages pretty quickly when I travel.  After a few days in a place, even if I don’t speak the language very well, I find that my internal chatter, the din in my head starts to switch to the language around me. So, if I am in France, all the little phrases and words flying around my head will switch to French, and my dreams switch to French also. Sadly, I can speak French much better in my dreams than in real life.

ESL Insights: What could ESL teachers take away from understanding that language impacts how we think?

Lera Boroditsky:   Learning another language is not just a matter of learning to speak differently, it is also learning to think differently.  You have to notice different things and make different sets of discriminations to be able to speak another language well.  So, teaching a new language is not just teaching students how to translate from their first language or giving them a new way of expressing the thoughts they already have. It’s teaching them how to form their thoughts to fit with the requirements of the new language.

For many students, language will be strongly tied with identity. If students feel inauthentic speaking English, or they feel like they will never fit in as an English speaker, this can seriously undermine their motivation to learn. This sounds obvious, but creating positive affirming experiences speaking English can help English become a welcome and desired part of a student’s identity.


Lera Boroditsky: How Language Shapes Thought from The Long Now Foundation on FORA.tv
Do the languages we speak shape the way we think? For example, how do we think about time? The word “time” is the most frequent noun in the English language. Time is ubiquitous yet ephemeral. It forms the very fabric of our experience, and yet it is unperceivable: we cannot see, touch, or smell time. How do our minds create this fundamental aspect of experience? Do patterns in language and culture influence how we think about time?

Other Resources
Lera Boroditsky’s How Language Shapes Thought

Dreaming in Different Tongues: Languages and the Way We Think

The Power of Language with Lera Boroditsky

Upcoming Event:
In Conversation with Roy Eisenhardt
Wednesday, March 20, 2013, 7:30 pm
Venue: Herbst Theatre


Lera Boroditsky is an assistant professor of psychology at Stanford University and Editor in Chief of Frontiers in Cultural Psychology. Boroditsky’s research centers on how knowledge emerges out of the interactions of mind, world, and language, and how languages and cultures shape thinking. Boroditsky’s laboratory has collected data around the world, from Indonesia to Chile to Aboriginal Australia. She has been selected as one of the Visionaries changing the world by the Utne Reader, and her research has won multiple awards, including the CAREER award from the NSF, the Searle Scholars award, and the McDonnell Scholars award.

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