CEFR_C2 (IELTS 8-8.5)

1. How language shapes the way we think (subtitles)

2022-01-09 18:09:35 simyang 5


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So, I'll be speaking to you using language ...

00:16

because I can.

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This is one of these magical abilities that we humans have.

00:21

We can transmit really complicated thoughts to one another.

00:25

So what I'm doing right now is, I'm making sounds with my mouth

00:29

as I'm exhaling.

00:30

I'm making tones and hisses and puffs,

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and those are creating air vibrations in the air.

00:35

Those air vibrations are traveling to you,

00:38

they're hitting your eardrums,

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and then your brain takes those vibrations from your eardrums

00:44

and transforms them in o thoughts.

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I hope.

00:49

(Laughter)

00:50

I hope that's happening.

00:51

So because of this ability, we humans are able to transmit our ideas

00:56

across vast reaches of space and time.

00:58

We're able to transmit knowledge across minds.

01:03

I can put a bizarre new idea in your mind right now.

01:06

I could say,

01:08

"Imagine a jellyfish waltzing in a library

01:11

while thinking about quantum mechanics."

01:13

(Laughter)

01:15

Now, if everything has gone relatively well in your life so far,

01:18

you probably haven't had that thought before.

01:20

(Laughter)

01:21

But now I've just made you think it,

01:23

through language.

01:24

Now of course, there isn't just one language in the world,

01:27

there are about 7,000 languages spoken around the world.

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And all the languages differ from one another in all kinds of ways.

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Some languages have different sounds,

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they have different vocabularies,

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and they also have different structures --

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very importantly, different structures.

01:42

That begs the question:

01:44

Does the language we speak shape the way we think?

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Now, this is an ancient question.

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People have been speculating about this question forever.

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Charlemagne, Holy Roman emperor, said,

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"To have a second language is to have a second soul" --

01:56

strong statement that language crafts reality.

01:59

But on the other hand, Shakespeare has Juliet say,

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"What's in a name?

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A rose by any other name would smell as sweet."

02:07

Well, that suggests that maybe language doesn't craft reality.

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These arguments have gone back and forth for thousands of years.

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But until recently, there hasn't been any data

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to help us decide either way.

02:20

Recently, in my lab and other labs around the world,

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we've started doing research,

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and now we have actual scientific data to weigh in on this question.

02:28

So let me tell you about some of my favorite examples.

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I'll start with an example from an Aboriginal community in Australia

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that I had the chance to work with.

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These are the Kuuk Thaayorre people.

02:38

They live in Pormpuraaw at the very west edge of Cape York.

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What's cool about Kuuk Thaayorre is,

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in Kuuk Thaayorre, they don't use words like "left" and "right,"

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and instead, everything is in cardinal directions:

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north, south, east and west.

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And when I say everything, I really mean everything.

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You would say something like,

02:57

"Oh, there's an ant on your southwest leg."

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Or, "Move your cup to the north-northeast a little bit."

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In fact, the way that you say "hello" in Kuuk Thaayorre is you say,

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"Which way are you going?"

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And the answer should be,

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"North-northeast in the far distance.

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How about you?"

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So imagine as you're walking around your day,

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every person you greet,

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you have to report your heading direction.

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(Laughter)

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But that would actually get you oriented pretty fast, right?

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Because you literally couldn't get past "hello,"

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if you didn't know which way you were going.

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In fact, people who speak languages like this stay oriented really well.

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They stay oriented better than we used to think humans could.

03:38

We used to think that humans were worse than other creatures

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because of some biological excuse:

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"Oh, we don't have magnets in our beaks or in our scales."

03:46

No; if your language and your culture trains you to do it,

03:49

actually, you can do it.

03:51

There are humans around the world who stay oriented really well.

03:54

And just to get us in agreement

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about how different this is from the way we do it,

03:58

I want you all to close your eyes for a second

04:02

and point southeast.

04:04

(Laughter)

04:05

Keep your eyes closed. Point.

04:10

OK, so you can open your eyes.

04:12

I see you guys pointing there, there, there, there, there ...

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I don't know which way it is myself --

04:18

(Laughter)

04:20

You have not been a lot of help.

04:21

(Laughter)

04:23

So let's just say the accuracy in this room was not very high.

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This is a big difference in cognitive ability across languages, right?

04:29

Where one group -- very distinguished group like you guys --

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doesn't know which way is which,

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but in another group,

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I could ask a five-year-old and they would know.

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(Laughter)

04:39

There are also really big differences in how people think about time.

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So here I have pictures of my grandfather at different ages.

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And if I ask an English speaker to organize time,

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they might lay it out this way,

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from left to right.

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This has to do with writing direction.

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If you were a speaker of Hebrew or Arabic,

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you might do it going in the opposite direction,

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from right to left.

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But how would the Kuuk Thaayorre,

05:03

this Aboriginal group I just told you about, do it?

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They don't use words like "left" and "right."

05:07

Let me give you hint.

05:09

When we sat people facing south,

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they organized time from left to right.

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When we sat them facing north,

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they organized time from right to left.

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When we sat them facing east,

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time came towards the body.

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What's the pattern?

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East to west, right?

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So for them, time doesn't actually get locked on the body at all,

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it gets locked on the landscape.

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So for me, if I'm facing this way,

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then time goes this way,

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and if I'm facing this way, then time goes this way.

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I'm facing this way, time goes this way --

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very egocentric of me to have the direction of time chase me around

05:44

every time I turn my body.

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For the Kuuk Thaayorre, time is locked on the landscape.

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It's a dramatically different way of thinking about time.

05:52

Here's another really smart human trick.

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Suppose I ask you how many penguins are there.

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Well, I bet I know how you'd solve that problem if you solved it.

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You went, "One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight."

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You counted them.

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You named each one with a number,

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and the last number you said was the number of penguins.

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This is a little trick that you're taught to use as kids.

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You learn the number list and you learn how to apply it.

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A little linguistic trick.

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Well, some languages don't do this,

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because some languages don't have exact number words.

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They're languages that don't have a word like "seven"

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or a word like "eight."

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In fact, people who speak these languages don't count,

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and they have trouble keeping track of exact quantities.

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So, for example, if I ask you to match this number of penguins

06:36

to the same number of ducks,

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you would be able to do that by counting.

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But folks who don't have that linguistic trick can't do that.

06:47

Languages also differ in how they divide up the color spectrum --

06:50

the visual world.

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Some languages have lots of words for colors,

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some have only a couple words, "light" and "dark."

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And languages differ in where they put boundaries between colors.

07:00

So, for example, in English, there's a word for blue

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that covers all of the colors that you can see on the screen,

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but in Russian, there isn't a single word.

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Instead, Russian speakers have to differentiate

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between light blue, "goluboy,"

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and dark blue, "siniy."

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So Russians have this lifetime of experience of, in language,

07:19

distinguishing these two colors.

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When we test people's ability to perceptually discriminate these colors,

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what we find is that Russian speakers are faster

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across this linguistic boundary.

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They're faster to be able to tell the difference

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between a light and dark blue.

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And when you look at people's brains as they're looking at colors --

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say you have colors shifting slowly from light to dark blue --

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the brains of people who use different words for light and dark blue

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will give a surprised reaction as the colors shift from light to dark,

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as if, "Ooh, something has categorically changed,"

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whereas the brains of English speakers, for example,

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that don't make this categorical distinction,

07:56

don't give that surprise,

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because nothing is categorically changing.

08:02

Languages have all kinds of structural quirks.

08:04

This is one of my favorites.

08:05

Lots of languages have grammatical gender;

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every noun gets assigned a gender, often masculine or feminine.

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And these genders differ across languages.

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So, for example, the sun is feminine in German but masculine in Spanish,

08:19

and the moon, the reverse.

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Could this actually have any consequence for how people think?

08:25

Do German speakers think of the sun as somehow more female-like,

08:29

and the moon somehow more male-like?

08:31

Actually, it turns out that's the case.

08:33

So if you ask German and Spanish speakers to, say, describe a bridge,

08:39

like the one here --

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"bridge" happens to be grammatically feminine in German,

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grammatically masculine in Spanish --

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German speakers are more likely to say bridges are "beautiful," "elegant"

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and stereotypically feminine words.

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Whereas Spanish speakers will be more likely to say

08:55

they're "strong" or "long,"

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these masculine words.

09:00

(Laughter)

09:03

Languages also differ in how they describe events, right?

09:08

You take an event like this, an accident.

09:10

In English, it's fine to say, "He broke the vase."

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In a language like Spanish,

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you might be more likely to say, "The vase broke,"

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or, "The vase broke itself."

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If it's an accident, you wouldn't say that someone did it.

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In English, quite weirdly, we can even say things like,

09:28

"I broke my arm."

09:29

Now, in lots of languages,

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you couldn't use that construction unless you are a lunatic

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and you went out looking to break your arm --

09:37

(Laughter)

09:38

and you succeeded.

09:39

If it was an accident, you would use a different construction.

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Now, this has consequences.

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So, people who speak different languages will pay attention to different things,

09:48

depending on what their language usually requires them to do.

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So we show the same accident to English speakers and Spanish speakers,

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English speakers will remember who did it,

10:00

because English requires you to say, "He did it; he broke the vase."

10:03

Whereas Spanish speakers might be less likely to remember who did it

10:07

if it's an accident,

10:08

but they're more likely to remember that it was an accident.

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They're more likely to remember the intention.

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So, two people watch the same event,

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witness the same crime,

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but end up remembering different things about that event.

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This has implications, of course, for eyewitness testimony.

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It also has implications for blame and punishment.

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So if you take English speakers

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and I just show you someone breaking a vase,

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and I say, "He broke the vase," as opposed to "The vase broke,"

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even though you can witness it yourself,

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you can watch the video,

10:40

you can watch the crime against the vase,

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you will punish someone more,

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you will blame someone more if I just said, "He broke it,"

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as opposed to, "It broke."

10:50

The language guides our reasoning about events.

10:55

Now, I've given you a few examples

10:58

of how language can profoundly shape the way we think,

11:02

and it does so in a variety of ways.

11:04

So language can have big effects,

11:06

like we saw with space and time,

11:08

where people can lay out space and time

11:10

in completely different coordinate frames from each other.

11:14

Language can also have really deep effects --

11:17

that's what we saw with the case of number.

11:19

Having count words in your language,

11:21

having number words,

11:22

opens up the whole world of mathematics.

11:25

Of course, if you don't count, you can't do algebra,

11:27

you can't do any of the things

11:29

that would be required to build a room like this

11:32

or make this broadcast, right?

11:34

This little trick of number words gives you a stepping stone

11:37

in o a whole cognitive realm.

11:40

Language can also have really early effects,

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what we saw in the case of color.

11:46

These are really simple, basic, perceptual decisions.

11:48

We make thousands of them all the time,

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and yet, language is getting in there

11:52

and fussing even with these tiny little perceptual decisions that we make.

11:58

Language can have really broad effects.

12:00

So the case of grammatical gender may be a little silly,

12:03

but at the same time, grammatical gender applies to all nouns.

12:08

That means language can shape how you're thinking

12:10

about anything that can be named by a noun.

12:14

That's a lot of stuff.

12:16

And finally, I gave you an example of how language can shape things

12:19

that have personal weight to us --

12:21

ideas like blame and punishment or eyewitness memory.

12:23

These are important things in our daily lives.

12:28

Now, the beauty of linguistic diversity is that it reveals to us

12:33

just how ingenious and how flexible the human mind is.

12:37

Human minds have invented not one cognitive universe, but 7,000 --

12:42

there are 7,000 languages spoken around the world.

12:46

And we can create many more --

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languages, of course, are living things,

12:50

things that we can hone and change to suit our needs.

12:55

The tragic thing is that we're losing so much of this linguistic diversity

12:59

all the time.

13:00

We're losing about one language a week,

13:02

and by some estimates,

13:03

half of the world's languages will be gone in the next hundred years.

13:07

And the even worse news is that right now,

13:10

almost everything we know about the human mind and human brain

13:14

is based on studies of usually American English-speaking undergraduates

13:19

at universities.

13:22

That excludes almost all humans. Right?

13:26

So what we know about the human mind is actually incredibly narrow and biased,

13:31

and our science has to do better.

13:37

I want to leave you with this final thought.

13:40

I've told you about how speakers of different languages think differently,

13:43

but of course, that's not about how people elsewhere think.

13:47

It's about how you think.

13:48

It's how the language that you speak shapes the way that you think.

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And that gives you the opportunity to ask,

13:55

"Why do I think the way that I do?"

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"How could I think differently?"

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And also,

14:01

"What thoughts do I wish to create?"

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Thank you very much.

14:05

(Applause)


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