She explores the world of language and thought
At the end of Oscar Wilde's play, "The Importance of Being Earnest," the lovelorn Jack and Gwendolyn discover that they are cousins. This meant that Jack, who had been jilted for lack of a proper pedigree, is actually Gwendolyn's social equal. The two are finally, and happily, allowed to marry.
MIT's Lera Boroditsky, whose first language is Russian, didn't get it.
That's because in Russian, the word for cousin, "brat," is also used for brother. Boroditsky thought the star-crossed lovers were actually siblings. "I got to that part of the story and thought, `Oh no!," she said. "It's a tragedy -- now they'll never get married!"'
For Boroditsky, such cross-lingual conundrums are more than just amusing anecdotes, they offer potentially profound insights into the workings of the mind. Through her research, the 27-year-old assistant professor of brain and cognitive science has breathed new life into an old debate, and in doing so, launched herself to the leading edge of a scientific controversy.
"She will be a force to be reckoned with," said Harvard linguist Steven Pinker. "Even if I don't agree with everything she says."
At the heart of Boroditsky's research is a question: Does the language we speak shape the way we think?
At first, the answer seems obvious. The 6,000 languages of the world are wildly diverse, and it seems reasonable that language must shape the way people think about the world. Take gender, for instance. English speakers don't assign any genders to nouns. But in Spanish, the word for "bridge" for example, is masculine and in German it is feminine. In a recent study, Boroditsky found that German speakers used words such as "elegant," "fragile," and "pretty" to describe a bridge, where Spanish speakers chose adjectives such as "strong," "sturdy," and "dangerous."
But what do these differences really mean? As Steven Pinker put it, "just because a German thinks a bridge is feminine, doesn't mean he's going to ask one out on a date."
Boroditsky argues that each individual effect might be small, but the cumulative effects could be awesome.
"A lot of languages have small grammatical differences, like genders that attach to every noun," she said. "Now in each case that's a small difference, but if you add it all up -- every single noun -- it could be huge."
Scientists have been arguing about the influence of language on thought for decades, ever since Benjamin Lee Whorf, an amateur linguist, popularized the idea in the early 20th century. But over the years, scientists began to poke holes in his not-quite-impeccable research and by the early 1990s, Whorf had been dumped in the scientific dustbin.
"To take it at all seriously," said Northwestern University psychology professor Dedre Gentner, "was to risk being written off as a gullible fool."
But Boroditsky, then a graduate student in cognitive science at Stanford, decided that Whorf deserved a second look.
"I didn't have anything to lose," she said. "It wasn't like I had a whole career and I was putting everything on the line. I just thought, `This is a question I'd like to find an answer for.' "
Her work at Stanford showed that English and Mandarin speakers think about time differently because of differences in how the two languages talk about time. The results were hailed by proponents and critics alike, and today there are at least a dozen groups across the country doing similar research. Boroditsy herself has just established a lab in Indonesia, and the first round of studies -- on Indonesian verbs -- is intriguing.
English verbs, unlike Indonesian, contain information about time. For instance, in English, you can't say a girl "eat a cookie." Either she is eating, just ate, will eat, etc. Scientists in Boroditsky's lab showed people pictures of a man in various stages of kicking a ball, and asked them to describe the photo. English speakers used verbs with time markers 100 percent of the time, while Indonesian speakers used them only 50 percent of the time. But subjects who spoke both Indonesian and English, when tested in Indonesian, used markers 85 percent of the time. Learning English seemed to make them pay more attention to when an action takes place.
The results add more fuel to the scientific debate. And Boroditsky doesn't mind the heat.
"What this research has done is re-opened the question," she said. "It's not such a loony thing to do anymore."
Where do you live: Cambridge
Education: Bachelor of arts in cognitive science, Northwestern University, 1996; doctorate in cognitive psychology, Stanford University, 2001
Family status: No children. No pets. "I can hardly even remember to clothe and feed myself on a regular basis."
Favorite movie: "Annie Hall"
Strangest employment experience: "My first-ever job at a hot-dog joint in Chicago called Weiner Take All -- that was when I was 14 and a strict vegetarian. It was a really tough job; hot, greasy, hectic, but also a whole lot of fun. I was the only girl that had ever worked there, and also one of their worst employees (I think they only kept me on 'cause I could do the math). I can still grill a mean hot dog, though."
Coolest job you ever had: "Getting a job as a professor at MIT when I was 23. I still can't believe that I get paid to do what I do."
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