Lost in translation


Go to http://online.wsj.com/article/NA_WSJ_PUB:SB10001424052748703467304575383131592767868.html

for this article from The Wall Street Journal summarising new cognitive research from Professor Lera Boroditsky from the Department of Psychology at Stanford University.  The research suggests that the people see the world in profoundly different ways, shaped by the languages they speak.  This is a question raised by Michael Walsh in ‘Classifying the World in an Aboriginal Language’ (in Language and Culture in Aboriginal Australia, Chapter 8), a reading for Topic 4.  Walsh asks (at p. 119), ‘Does the language you grow up using influence the way you perceive the world because of its inbuilt perceptual and conceptual grid?  Or is it that the culture (and even the environment) shapes the perceptual and conceptual grid which has developed in the language?’  Boroditsky suggests that there is evidence for the former proposition.  One example given in the article is of the Aboriginal community of Pormpuraaw  (West coast, Cape York Peninsula, Queensland.  Many Pormpuraaw children speak a local Aboriginal language as their first language. The Thaayorre people mainly speak Kuuk Thaayorre and related dialects. The Mungkan people speak a variety of Kugu or Wik languages:  see http://www.atsip.qld.gov.au/people/communities/pormpuraaw/).  Boroditsky found that the Australian languages in this region use absolute cardinal directions instead of ‘left’ and ‘right’, and discusses how this changes the way a speaker looks at the world.  See also Boroditsky, L. & Gaby, A. (2010). Absolute spatial representations of time in an Aboriginal Australian community. Psychological Science. (forthcoming) at http://www-psych.stanford.edu/~lera/papers/.

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