Lera Boroditsky: Language Influencing Thought

By Jamie Leach, Assistant Teacher

Lera Boroditsky believes the language children speak shapes how they think. An assistant professor in Stanford’s psychology department, she is one of the first scholars to back up this commonly held belief. Her work has taken her around the world, including to our own Bing Nursery School.

Bing teachers had the opportunity to hear from Boroditsky, PhD, at the spring staff development day. She described her research on the influence of language on thought as well as how the emergence of this influence varies from language to language.

Her research has uncovered many instances of language molding thought. For example, in a study comparing native Indonesian speakers and native English speakers, Boroditsky found that Indonesian speakers were much less likely to use time markers when describing actions than English speakers. In Indonesian, you might say the equivalent of “a girl kick a ball.” But not in English. Instead you would say that she is kicking, is about to kick, or has kicked. As a result, speaking English seems to lead a person to be more attuned to when an action takes place.

Boroditsky has conducted similar studies around the world, investigating a variety of languages. She presented a subset of this work to the Bing staff, including a study with young children in aboriginal Australia showing that speakers of one aboriginal dialect perceive time as moving east to west, rather than left to right as do English speakers. Boroditsky’s presentation inspired the Bing staff to attend to these interesting cross-linguistic differences when planning curriculum and supporting children’s growth in the classroom.