Tomiris Kaumenova

Read the instructor’s introduction
Read the writer’s comments and bio
Download this essay

Vivid, vibrant, rich, complex and simply fascinating, language is our primary means to communicate and connect. We acquire short words and phrases as kids to address to our caregiver, then we go to kindergarten to learn how to build simple sentences. Later, we attend school where we are taught how to write and think more elaborately in a language or two, or many. Throughout our lives we keep operating with the linguistic patterns we once acquired, and as our brains develop, our language skills develop too. There is no doubt that language is a part of our cognitive system, and there have been multiple research studies on the link between language and thought processes in human’s brain. One of the research groups led by Lera Boroditsky investigated the notions of space, time, colors, and objects in some of the world languages. Through interesting cross-linguistic examples in “How Does Our Language Shape the Way We Think?”, Boroditsky tries to prove that the language we speak determines how we look at the world. Thus, according to Boroditsky, people who speak different languages have a different mindset, a different set of problem-solving skills, and a different ability to extract, digest, and present information. It follows that it is essential to preserve this unique insight by preserving a language. However, Stephen Pax Leonard seems to be concerned about the future of languages. In “Death by Monoculture,” he accuses global languages like English and Western consumerist culture of being destructive machines to other cultures and languages. Putting the two articles together, it becomes clear that we are not only moving towards a uniform language and culture—we are moving towards a uniform way of thinking.

While the brain governs the production of speech via language, it might be surprising to realize that there exists a reverse dependence: language has influence on the brain. According to Boroditsky, our brains produce a picture distinct from brains of speakers of other language groups. For example, people in China think of time vertically, whereas English-speaking people think of time horizontally. Germans perceive bridges as more female-like, while Spanish speakers perceive them as more male-like, because the word ‘bridge’ is feminine and masculine in their languages respectively. Russian speakers are able to distinguish between light blue and dark blue faster than English speakers, because Russian has two separate words for the shades of the color blue (Boroditsky 139, 141, 142). Does it mean then that a language represents a different perspective? Leonard believes that it is true. When he says, “When languages die, we do not just lose words, but we lose different ways of conceptually framing things,” his voice echoes that of Boroditsky: “…languages profoundly shape… the way we see the world, the way we live our lives” (Leonard 147, Boroditsky 143). Thus, Boroditsky’s essay is the foundation for the principal argument that Leonard makes in his article.

However, Leonard further extends his argument by stating that languages disappear, and we are leaning towards a single language, a monoculture. Unlike Boroditsky who just reports her research results, Leonard takes a stance: “There should be no need to defend linguistic diversity. It and the power of language are something to be celebrated” (148). The articles also diverge in terms of the purpose for which they were written. Boroditsky summarizes the results obtained in her linguistic lab to popularize new discoveries, while Leonard aims to convince the audience that it is urgent to stop the extinction of languages. The scope of the information in the articles differs as well. Boroditsky presents facts about several world languages, but Leonard introduces us to a particular community of Polar Eskimos whose language was negatively affected by the spread of English. Another contrast between the articles is the sources from which they were derived. Boroditsky illustrates her point by using collected research data, while Leonard uses his personal experience of visiting the Arctic region. In brief, although there is a clear parallel in the opinions of Boroditsky and Leonard, there are multiple dissimilarities in the articles themselves, including their type (expository vs. persuasive), the purpose for which they were written (inform vs. persuade), the range of cases (general vs specific) and the kind of evidence (factual vs. personal) that they offer.

Of course, one might wonder if there is a point in finding similarities and differences in the articles at all. Some argue that our thought processes are too complex to be analyzed from such a narrow perspective, and Boroditsky’s theory is only a theory. Others also maintain that even though globalization is happening, it does not necessarily mean that we are going to have identical thinking. In other words, same culture and same language do not equal same thinking. Alan Yu quotes John McWhorter, a linguist at Columbia University: “Nothing has ever demonstrated that your language makes you process life in a different way. It just doesn’t work” (Yu). While I concede that there are many factors influencing our perception of the environment and that we need more scientific data to confirm Boroditsky’s theory, I still firmly believe that our language makes us think differently. For instance, when I converse in English, I choose other topics to talk about rather than when I speak my first language, Russian. Sometimes I even notice how my personality alters, as I switch from one language to another; it is like I am being a completely different person. I am not alone in my beliefs. A famous French actress raised bilingual, Isabelle Adjani, says the following: “From the moment we speak a foreign language, our hand and facial expressions, our body language changes. We are already someone else” (quoted in Bodin). Hence, language does play a role in defining the way we think.

In conclusion, I find the differences between the type, purpose, scope and evidence of the articles’ content irrelevant to the pressing issue of language extinction. I consider the similarity to be more significant for a reader to grasp. Both articles should be observed only in the light of the idea that “…linguistic processes are pervasive in most fundamental domains of thought…” (Boroditsky, 143). The concept is necessary to extend the claim of Leonard that “languages die” to the idea that as languages die, with them fades away the invaluable knowledge of “how groups of speakers ‘know the world’” (Leonard, 147). It is crucial to realize that the tendency is dangerous, because we become similar to each other not only in terms of culture or language, but also in thinking. It’s like a math exercise: can we be sure to solve it, if we don’t try to approach it in numerous ways? Can we hope for humanity to survive, develop, and live happily, if we only look at the world from one angle?

Works Cited

Bodin, Yolaine. “The Language Nook – Le Coin Langues.” Yolaine Bodin, 28 Aug. 2017. Web.

Boroditsky, Lena. “How Does Our Language Shape the Way We Think?” Globalization: A Reader for Writers. Ed. Maria Jerskey. New York, Oxford University Press, 2014. 135–143. Print.

Leonard, Stephen Pax. “Death by Monoculture.” Globalization: A Reader for Writers. Ed. Maria Jerskey. New York, Oxford University Press, 2014. 145–148. Print.

Yu, Alan. “How Language Seems To Shape One’s View Of The World.” NPR. NPR. 2 Jan. 2014. Web.