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ERIC Number: EJ854577
Record Type: Journal
Publication Date: 2003
Pages: 5
Abstractor: ERIC
Reference Count: 0
ISSN: ISSN-0005-3503
You Are What You Speak
Motluk, Alison
Babel, v38 n2 p4-8 Spr 2003
Does the language one speaks influence the way he thinks? Does it help define his world view? Anyone who has tried to master a foreign tongue has at least considered the possibility. Little linguistic peculiarities, though amusing, don't change the objective world people are describing. So how can they alter the way they think? Scientists and philosophers have been grappling with this thorny question for centuries. There have always been those who argue that people's picture of the universe depends on their native tongue. Since the 1960s, however, with the ascent of thinkers like Noam Chomsky and a host of cognitive scientists, the consensus has been that linguistic differences don't really matter, that language is a universal human trait, and that people's ability to talk to one another owes more to their shared genetics than to their varying cultures. However, a new generation of scientists is not convinced that language is innate and hard-wired into people's brain. "Language is not just notation," says Dan Slobin of the University of California at Berkeley. "The brain is shaped by experience." Slobin and others say that small, even apparently insignificant differences between languages do affect the way speakers perceive the world. "Some people argue that language just changes what you attend to," says Lera Boroditsky of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "But what you attend to changes what you encode and remember." In short, it changes how people think. For the moment, Slobin and others are scratching their heads trying to understand some of their findings but, if it does turn out that the language people speak influences the way they think, the implications are far-reaching. Individuals already know that each language is unique and provides its own insights into human history and culture, but if they also provide different ways of seeing the world then they are even more valuable than they had assumed. "We need all of this kind of data to understand human nature," says Slobin.
Australian Federation of Modern Language Teachers Associations. Faculty of Education and Social Work, University of Sydney, NSW 2006, Australia. Tel: +61-29351-2022; e-mail:; e-mail:; Web site:
Publication Type: Journal Articles; Reports - Evaluative
Education Level: N/A
Audience: N/A
Language: English
Sponsor: N/A
Authoring Institution: N/A