Research seems to be demonstrating that “people who speak different languages do indeed think differently and that even flukes of grammar can profoundly affect how we see the world.”
Intriguing article! I’ve often said, as this writer does, that language is an essential element of our humanity, and I tell students yearly that gaining mastery over one’s own language (and at least one other) is vital for thinking and living effectively in the larger human community. Boroditsky’s research and other experiments are showing, for example:
How do we know that it is language itself that creates these differences in thought and not some other aspect of their respective cultures?
One way to answer this question is to teach people new ways of talking and see if that changes the way they think. In our lab, we’ve taught English speakers different ways of talking about time. In one such study, English speakers were taught to use size metaphors (as in Greek) to describe duration (e.g., a movie is larger than a sneeze), or vertical metaphors (as in Mandarin) to describe event order. Once the English speakers had learned to talk about time in these new ways, their cognitive performance began to resemble that of Greek or Mandarin speakers. This suggests that patterns in a language can indeed play a causal role in constructing how we think.6 In practical terms, it means that when you’re learning a new language, you’re not simply learning a new way of talking, you are also inadvertently learning a new way of thinking.
… Language is central to our experience of being human, and the languages we speak profoundly shape the way we think, the way we see the world, the way we live our lives.
(6 Ibid., “How Deep Are Effects of Language on Thought? Time Estimation in Speakers of English and Greek” (in review); L. Boroditsky, “Does Language Shape Thought? English and Mandarin Speakers’ Conceptions of Time.” Cognitive Psychology 43, no. 1(2001): 1–22.)
And these ideas about the pervasive effects of language and perspective also apply to reading poetry and any literature. If one can possibly encounter a literary text in its original language, that is best. An English translation of a Japanese haiku is not actually equivalent. Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf is not really Beowulf, though it’s a rattling good read. Buffy in French isn’t quite Buffy.