American in Spain

Lera Boroditsky on Language

December 17, 2010

Lera BoroditskyThe other day I watched a ninety minute video of a speech by Dr. Lera Boroditsky, of Stanford University, about her work on comparing and contrasting languages across cultures and drawing conclusions on how language affects the way we think. Astute readers may recall my interest in this topic, and specifically in Boroditsky's work on the subject, from my In Spanish, It's Not Your Fault post. Today, I just want to point out a few points from her talk that resonated with me and then direct you towards the video itself.


She does go into detail about Spanish vs. English and culpability. She uses the academic terms agentive or non-agentive. In fact, English is fairly rare in its insistence of attributing actions to an agent. In an experiment, native English and Spanish speakers were shown a video of a man intentionally performing an action (e.g. popping a balloon) and then another one of a man unintentionally causing an action. Then, they were asked to pick the man out of a lineup. The anglophones did well identifying the man in both scenarios, but the hispanophones had much more trouble identifying the man when the action happened unintentionally, since they hadn't needed to focus on him as the subject of the sentence when they thought about the video. Not only that, but the researchers were able to induce this effect in native English speakers by making them read lots of passive voice, non-agentive sentences before watching the videos. Fascinating!


How odd is it that so many human languages would evolve to consider various inanimate objects as inherently masculine or feminine? Not that odd, apparently, as some languages have up to 30 genders, at which point it becomes clear that genders are really just classifications of concepts. Some languages have a gender just for hunting weapons or things that are shiny. And then there's the famously humorous Australian Aboriginal gender for "women, fire, and dangerous things".

The gender of objects in the languages we speak directly influences how we think about an object. In Russian, a chair is masculine, so Russians – even if they are tested in English! – will describe a chair as sturdy and strong, whereas a Spaniard, who has a feminine concept of a chair, will describe it as elegant and slender and beautiful.

What surprised me most about the gender section of her talk was my emotive reaction to learning how, for many words, Russian has some opposite genders to Spanish. It really feels inherently wrong to me that, in Russian, chairs, flowers, and the moon are all masculine, and the sun is feminine. How revolting! My emotions on this subject are direct evidence of just how much learning a second language directly influences how you think about the world.

Monolingual Questioner

During the Q&A session after the talk, one of the people facilitating the questions is Stewart Brand, who is clearly a very intelligent man, but who came across to me as a glaringly ignorant monolingual. He says – and I'm paraphrasing – "Here in California, we hear a lot of Spanish, and it seems to me that Spanish is a very simple language, with each thing having one word associated with it, whereas English has a rich tapestry of words for each concept. If I ever got Alzheimer's," he quips, "I'd rather have it in English than in Spanish, because there would be more words to convey what he meant even if he couldn't think of the word I wanted."

I've heard this same opinion, but reversed, from monolingual Spaniards. You have to get quite deep into learning a language before you learn all the synonyms. In Spain, for example, they have a very rich bacon-flavored tapestry of words for the animal from which they derive their favorite meat: cochino, puerco, guarro, marrano, chon, etc. But you could probably get to fourth-year Spanish in college and never learn more than cerdo for the word pig, because you really don't need the rest until you're writing poetry or insulting someone in a Spanish bar.

Dr. Boroditsky does an excellent job of not calling Brand an idiot, even if the look on her face does.

The Video

Her talk doesn't actually start until about the four minute mark because first they preview a wonderful short video from my beloved RadioLab, aptly titled Words. It's a sequence of very video clips cleverly edited that requires a good knowledge of English to follow. The full length video is available on, where they provide a nice table of contents for navigating to just the bits you're interested in if you so choose.

I'm really starting to love as a site for what are more or less unabridged TED talks.