Never mind the conclusions, what's the evidence?

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A month ago, I linked to Lera Boroditsky's WSJ piece "Lost in Translation", and promised to discuss the contents in more detail at some point in the future ("Boroditsky on Whorfian navigation and blame", 7/26/2010). At the time, I noted that there is probably no single linguistic idea that is more prone to exaggeration and mis-application than the "Sapir-Whorf hypothesis" about the relations between language and thought. And the WSJ editors' subhed for Boroditsky's article gives their readers a push down that road:

New cognitive research suggests that language profoundly influences the way people see the world; a different sense of blame in Japanese and Spanish.

Meanwhile, the NYT Sunday magazine has just published a major article by Guy Deutscher, "Does Your Language Shape How You Think?" (8/26/2010), which I hereby promise to discuss in detail at some point in the future. And in order not to let my neo-Whorfianism account fall too many promises in arrears, I'll actually post about Boroditsky's WSJ piece today. (I won't try to discuss both articles at the same time, because in this sort of thing, it's the scientific details that matter.)

So what's the evidence that there's "a different sense of blame in Japanese and Spanish"? Let's take up a representative set of experiments for Spanish first, from Caitlin Fausey and Lera Boroditsky, "English and Spanish speakers remember causal agents differently", CogSci 2008.  In my earlier post, I invited you to read this as well as other articles by Fausey and Boroditsky if you're interested in neo-Whorfianism, and I hereby repeat the suggestion.

But when you read scientific articles — especially those dealing with general conclusions about complicated topics — you need to know what to pay attention to. And the best advice that anyone can give you  is to ignore the conclusions until you're sure you have a good grasp of the facts.

In Fausey and Boroditsky 2008, the facts come from two experiments. In both cases, the important dependent variable was subjects' memory for "who did it?", asked with respect to each of a series of short video clips. Here's their description of the procedure in Experiment 1:

Videos of 16 unique events were prepared. Three white male adults acted as agents in an intentional version and an accidental version of each event. [The events were things like breaking a pencil, spilling water, dropping keys, etc.] […]

Learning phase. During the learning phase, participants viewed 16 videos. Each video was a unique event, in which one of two male agents appeared. A man wearing a blue shirt acted as the agent in eight events and a different man wearing a yellow shirt acted as the agent in the other eight events. Each male appeared as the agent in four intentional events and in four accidental events. […]

Across participants, each particular event featured the same actor as the agent (e.g., the blue-shirt man was always the agent in the balloon popping videos), but half of the participants viewed the intentional version of the event while the other half viewed its accidental counterpart. [..]

Distracter phase. After viewing 16 videos, participants were instructed to count to 10. Pilot testing revealed that a longer delay period between learning and test resulted in chance performance for agent memory in this paradigm.

Test phase. Each trial of the recognition memory test consisted of a probe video followed by a picture of both agents that had appeared during the learning phase (i.e., blue-shirt guy and yellow-shirt guy).

In each probe video, an unfamiliar man wearing a green shirt appeared as the causal agent of the same events that had been presented during the learning phase. For example, if a participant had seen the “accidental balloon popping” event during learning, s/he would see this same event acted by the new agent in the test phase. After viewing the probe video, participants were asked, “Who did it the first time?” (“¿Quién lo hizo la primera vez?”) and responded by mouse-clicking on one of the two agent pictures (either the blue-shirt guy or the yellow-shirt guy).

Before we get to the results, it's important to note something about the experimental design. The set-up has been carefully calibrated to generate interpretable results, i.e. results between the floor (where everyone's memory is at chance) and the ceiling (where everyone's memory is perfect).  In order to reach this goal, certain choices were made in designing this experiment. The events (whether intentional or accidental) were banal and inconsequential; the actors were comparable in all characteristics (age, sex, ethnicity, formality of dress) except for shirt color; and the design made appropriate choices of the number of events to remember, the length of the "distractor phase", and the degree of motivation of the participants.

Changing any of these design characteristics might well push the results out of that crucial range above 50% and below 100% on the binary forced choice. There's nothing wrong with this — all psychological experiments have to be calibrated in this way if they're to produce any interpretable results at all.  But by the same token, you need to ask about every experiment what sorts of generalization the calibration permits. We'll come back to this point later on.

The test was administered to three groups of subjects, in three different universities:

63 monolingual English speakers (Stanford University), 87 monolingual Spanish speakers (Universidad de Chile), and 38 Spanish-English bilinguals (University of California, Merced) received course credit or were paid for their participation. Half of the bilinguals completed the experiment in English and half in Spanish.

All three groups did about equally  well in identifying the original agent in the intentional-event videos: 80.4% for the Stanford students, 78.5% for the Universidad de Chile students, and 75.9% for the UCM students. None of these differences were statistically significant.  However, in the case of the accidental-event videos, the Stanford students did "significantly" (in the statistical sense) better (82.3%) than the Chilean students (74.1%) and the UCM students (68.8%).

The first thing to say about these results is that the differences are not very big.  Here's a different way to frame the same results:

The Stanford students were 1.9% better at remembering accidental agents than intentional agents; the Chilean students were 4.4% worse, and the UCM students were 7.1% worse. Overall, the Stanford students were about 5.1% more accurate than the Chilean students, and  about 9% more accurate than the UCM students [(80.4+82.3)/2 = 81.4, (78.5+74.1)/2 = 76.3, (75.9+68.8)/2 = 72.4].

So as the paper tells us, the Spanish-speaking and bilingual students showed a small but statistically-significant "selective impairment" for memory of the agents of accidental events, whereas the English-speaking students did not.

But there are some issues of description here. First, maybe this is a fact about the schools and not about the languages. Maybe Stanford students just tend to be more oriented toward liability for accidental events than students at Universidad de Chile or University of California Merced tend to be. Of course, this could be tested by doing the same experiment with some other Spanish-speaking vs. English-speaking populations.

The UCM students ought to give us some leverage on the difference between language and culture here, because

Half of the bilinguals completed the experiment in English and half in Spanish.

However, the memory results for the bilingual (UCM) subjects are (oddly) not broken out according to the language in which the experiment was administered — I take it that this means that the results were not significantly affected.

So what's the reason for thinking that language is involved with this at all? Well, the experiment also had an "event description phase":

Each participant described exactly the same videos s/he had seen during the learning phase of the agent memory study. In each description trial, participants viewed a video and were then prompted to answer the question “What happened?” (“¿Qué pasó?”). Participants typed their responses to these questions and received no feedback.

For each event video and for each language, both agentive ("he popped the balloon") and non-agentive ("the balloon popped") descriptions were in principle available. But the three subject groups showed systematic differences in their proportions of agentive and non-agentive descriptions:

So this suggests that the relative salience of agents in subjects' linguistic descriptions is more or less consistent with their ability to remember who the agents were.  But still, is this a fact about speaking English vs. speaking Spanish? Or is it a fact about cultural differences in attitudes toward responsibility for accidental events? After all, both agentive and non-agentive descriptions are available to speakers of both languages.

Here the results for the bilingual subjects might help us out, since half of them took the test in English and half of them in Spanish. This still doesn't really distinguish between language and culture, since the choice of language might well prime different cultural patterns (as it did in the experiments described here and here). But in this case, we don't even get quite that far:

Bilingual description patterns did not vary by task language.2 Subsequent analyses therefore considered the bilingual sample as a whole.

2 A trend to use more agentive language when describing accidents in English (M=73.0) than in Spanish (M=63.2), p = .07, suggests that more data may increase power to detect an effect of local linguistic context. Ongoing research will help to address this issue.

Summing up, we have a small difference in memory for agents of accidental events, correlated with a difference in propensity to mention the agent in a description of the event.  So far, this seems best described as a small cultural difference in the salience of accidental agents. It leaves open the question of whether the difference in proportion of agentive descriptions is playing any causal role at all in the memory results. So Fausey and Boroditsky did a second experiment, presumably at Stanford, to see whether linguistic priming of agency would affect memory results.

60 English speakers (32 agentive prime, 28 non-agentive prime) received course credit or were paid for participation.

in the priming phase of the experiment,

Participants in each condition listened to 24 sentences, either all agentive (e.g., She burned the toast) or all non-agentive (e.g., The toast burned). No verbs that could describe actions in the agent memory task were used. […]

While listening to each sentence, participants viewed an image that contained two pictures: the beginning and the end state of the affected object. For example, people who heard She burned the toast or The toast burned viewed a screen with a piece of bread on the left and a burned piece of bread on the right. […]

Participants were instructed to click on the picture that the sentence described, making the task and correct response identical in each prime condition.

All of the participants were then given the same agent-memory task as in Experiment 1. As predicted, subjects who were primed with agentive sentences remembered agents (whether intentional or accidental) better:

This shows, unsurprisingly, that agentivity is one of the features for which that priming works. (It would have been big news if the attempt to prime it had failed.) Thus it's plausible that what caused the differential performance for the different subject groups in Experiment 1 might have been a sort of self-priming, where an overall greater tendency to describe accidental events agentively in inner speech led to an overall better memory for accidental agents. Of course, it's at least equally plausible that a greater tendency to describe specific events agentively in inner speech led to better memory for those particular agents. (And it remains possible that Stanford students are simply more interested in liability for accidents, or better at remembering it, other things equal, than the other groups of students.)

One interesting point: if we compare across experiments, the effect of priming seems to be to interfere with agent memory for the subjects in the nonagentive priming group, rather than to improve agent memory in the agentive priming group. Thus in Experiment 1,  the overall score of the Stanford subjects was 81.4%, whereas the subjects in Experiment 2 (presumably also Stanford undergrads in psychology courses) scored 78.1%  with agentive priming, and 71.5% with nonagentive priming.

Anyhow, one sample of Spanish-speakers (from Chile) and one sample of English-Spanish bilinguals (from California) showed a small "selective deficit" in memory for the agents of accidental events. One sample of English speakers (Stanford undergrads, from all over the U.S.) did not show this deficit. However, priming by 24 non-agentive sentences was enough to create an even larger memory deficit (apparently for both intentional and accidental agents) among a similar sample of Stanford undergrads.

What can we conclude from this?

Certainly we should reinforce our prior belief that a small amount of short-term priming creates powerful (if presumably temporary) effects — exposure to 24 sentences, in this case, was enough to generate an effect roughly twice as large as the difference between being a monolingual English-speaking undergraduate at Stanford and being a monolingual Spanish-speaking undergraduate at the Universidad de Chile.

We also should certainly reinforce our prior belief that, as Lane Greene aptly put it, "language nudges thought (in certain circumstances)". Even modest statistical differences in the way that different language communities tend to express things may correlate with modest differences in the way that their members remember things, if the experimental circumstances are carefully calibrated to produce memory performance in a range that allows these effects to be measured.

But we should certainly not, in my opinion, conclude that there is "a different sense of blame in … Spanish".

In fairness to Lera Boroditsky, that sub-heading was presumably supplied by an editor at the WSJ. She phrases things this way:

In addition to space and time, languages also shape how we understand causality. For example, English likes to describe events in terms of agents doing things. English speakers tend to say things like "John broke the vase" even for accidents. Speakers of Spanish or Japanese would be more likely to say "the vase broke itself."

How accurate is this?  It depends on what you think "more likely" means here. Specifically, in the study we've been discussing, the Stanford students described accidental events agentively 79.2% of the time, whereas for the Chilean students, it was 62.5%. So those particular Spanish speakers were still more likely to describe the accidental events agentively than non-agentively, though it's true that they were more likely to describe those events non-agentively than the Stanford students were.  Whether this is a general fact about English and Spanish, or a more specific difference between those two student groups, remains to be determined.

Boroditsky goes on to suggest that

Such differences between languages have profound consequences for how their speakers understand events, construct notions of causality and agency, what they remember as eyewitnesses and how much they blame and punish others.

In my opinion, the paper that we've been discussing does not go very far towards justifying this claim. On the contrary, the observed differences (in event-understanding, notions of causality and agency, and eyewitness memory) were small rather than profound, and may be due to differences in culture as well as (or perhaps more than) than differences in language. As for differences in "how much they blame and punish others", that didn't come up — but Boroditsky's evidence for this is from another monolingual priming study (I think it's Fausey & Boroditsky, "Subtle linguistic cues influence perceived blame and financial liability", Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 2010):

English speakers watched the video of Janet Jackson's infamous "wardrobe malfunction" (a wonderful nonagentive coinage introduced into the English language by Justin Timberlake), accompanied by one of two written reports. The reports were identical except in the last sentence where one used the agentive phrase "ripped the costume" while the other said "the costume ripped." Even though everyone watched the same video and witnessed the ripping with their own eyes, language mattered. Not only did people who read "ripped the costume" blame Justin Timberlake more, they also levied a whopping 53% more in fines.

As I suggested in my earlier post, if you're interested in these questions, you really should read the original papers where the experiments are documented.  The body of research done by Boroditsky and her collaborators is extensive, careful, and interesting, and reprints are available on her excellent web site. But when you read these papers, as I suggested at the beginning of this post, you should ignore the conclusions until you're confident that you understand the facts.


  1. sarang said,

    August 30, 2010 @ 1:19 pm

    There are, of course, other obvious differences between the student populations at Stanford — a super-selective private university — and the U de C — a substantially larger, more eclectic place — and UC Merced — which I believe is one of the less prestigious UC's. This shows up in the "selective impairment" data exactly as one would naively expect. (Ideally, I think, one should have chosen UCLA and, say, Wisconsin… but I guess this is "if wishes were horses" territory.)

  2. Jair said,

    August 30, 2010 @ 1:40 pm

    Really interesting stuff. It seems nearly impossible to distinguish between the variables of language and culture, which are married together with an ill-defined boundary between them.

    The effect of linguistic priming might be well-known, but it was surprising to me. Part of the effect could be that students reading the sentences may be actively trying to guess what the coming task is. After all, these are students who have trained themselves to recognize the salient information by context cues (boxed information in textbooks, underlined terms on the blackboard, etc). So students reading the agentive sentences might guess that the coming task involves agency and so pay more attention to that aspect of the videos, just as students listen to an instructor's review before an exam in order to decide what to study. It'd be interesting to compare the effect of similar priming on non-students.

  3. Fiona Hanington said,

    August 30, 2010 @ 2:03 pm

    In a philosophy class on causality that I took quite some time ago, one of the students was Czech. She said (and I don't know if this is true; would be interested in hearing from the Czech speakers out there), that the Czech word for "effect" translates roughly to "coming after the cause."
    This came up because we were discussing (as one does in philosophy class and just about nowhere else!) whether a cause must always precede its effect. To her, the question was ridiculous. (As it was to some few others as well! But her point in particular has stayed with me ever since).

  4. bulbul said,

    August 30, 2010 @ 2:10 pm

    In addition to space and time, languages also shape how we understand causality. … "John broke the vase" … "the vase broke itself."
    A totally stupid question: And what if it's a cultural thing? To my mind, there is some difference between '(tracing) causality' and '(assigning) blame' and while a person might be perfectly aware of the causality, but they might be (socially conditioned to be) hesitant to point it out (i.e. assign blame).

  5. bulbul said,

    August 30, 2010 @ 2:13 pm


    you're thinking of "následek" (Slovak "následok"), derived from "následovat" = "to follow (transitive as well as intransitive), to come after".

  6. Fiona Hanington said,

    August 30, 2010 @ 2:23 pm

    @bulbul — Oh good! I remembered it correctly. Thanks!

  7. Chris said,

    August 30, 2010 @ 2:36 pm

    FYI: most online version of the original paper are seriously error ridden (graphs don't show). This seems to be the only one that displays and prints properly: . Unfortunately they didn't publish their actual stimuli from Experiment 2. I'd love to see the actual sentences.

  8. Jon W said,

    August 30, 2010 @ 2:37 pm

    On blame and the Fausey-Boroditsky 2010 paper ("Subtle linguistic cues influence perceived blame and financial liability"): This study supports the wholly unsurprising conclusion that a subject is more likely to assign blame to an actor after reading an (agentive) text that explicitly identifies the actor as having committed a particular (bad) act, than after reading a (nonagentive) text leaving open the possibility that the act happened without the actor's involvement. (Duh.) If speakers in group A use agentive language much more than speakers in Group B, it's reasonable to hypothesize that listeners in group A — hearing those agentive statements — will feel better equipped to assign blame. But at the very least, as ML points out, we still have to grapple with (a) *why* speakers in group A use agentive language more; and indeed (b) whether speakers in group B find some other way to convey judgments about agency.

  9. John said,

    August 30, 2010 @ 2:44 pm

    Is there a non-agentive way to ask the question "who did it?" such as "who was present when the balloon popped?" Or maybe, "whose balloon popped?"

    I ask because I'm curious about how the question itself serves as priming; if the Spanish speakers are less likely to describe accidental events using agentive language, is "Quien lo hizo?" even the correct question? Do the subjects actually have less memory for remembering accidental agents, or are they confused by being required to ascribe an agent to an accidental event?

  10. Rubrick said,

    August 30, 2010 @ 2:47 pm

    Such differences between languages have profound consequences for how their speakers understand events…

    I think you were too kind in your assessment of this statement. Alzheimer's has profound consequences for cognition. Muslim fundamentalism has profound consequences for the rights of women in Arab countries. World War II had profound consequences for the course of world history. Language differences might, possibly, have a minor effect on speakers' understanding of events in certain circumstances.

    To my mind, "profound" and "requiring a carefully controlled study to notice at all" are pretty much mutually exclusive, at least in psychology. If Spanish speakers truly understood events profoundly differently from me, I'd find subtitled Spanish films incomprehensible.

    [(myl) "Profound" certainly seems to be an unjustified word here, given the way most readers will interpret the phrase that you quote. But in evaluating the impact of the differences involved, it's important to consider the context. In modern democracies, for example, it's normal for polls — and elections — to focus on issues where opinions are about equally balanced, and where fairly small percentage differences are therefore important. So the sorts of effects under discussion here — especially in the monolingual priming case — could certainly matter, as polling experts and political consultants know.

    So these differences obviously doesn't rise to the level of making subtitled movies incomprehensible (beyond problems due to cultural rather than linguistic gaps). But in the form of systematic differences in headlines, slogans, and so on, they might swing an election from time to time.]

  11. Hermenautic Circle blog » Language shapes thought after all said,

    August 30, 2010 @ 3:24 pm

    […] be curious to see the responses from linguists and psychologists. (Mark Liberman, of Language Log, promises to discuss it soon–but first catches up with a related piece in the Wall Street Journal. He sounds […]

  12. Coby Lubliner said,

    August 30, 2010 @ 3:25 pm

    Boroditsky: English speakers tend to say things like "John broke the vase" even for accidents. Speakers of Spanish or Japanese would be more likely to say "the vase broke itself."

    It isn't that simple. If John (or Juan or Jun) was handling the vase while it broke accidentally, then a Spanish-speaker would say, "A Juan se le rompió el florero," and a Japanese (I think) would prefix the corresponding clause with "Jun wa." In fact this kind of construction is common in many languages, and English and French seem to be rather exceptional in conflating intentional and accidental events.

  13. Tamara said,

    August 30, 2010 @ 3:36 pm

    Jon W expressed my view exactly. To me, this study did not adequately separate the effects of language and culture, and indeed, I can't think of any good way to do so.

  14. David Eddyshaw said,

    August 30, 2010 @ 5:15 pm

    The bilinguals would presumably have been a good place to start trying to separate the effects of language and culture (though even then the difficulty would remain.) This seems to be exactly the place where a difference was in fact *not* found in this case.

  15. ?! said,

    August 30, 2010 @ 5:23 pm

    And Coby that's why English has the wonderful word "accidentally" which. placed before the word "broke" cancels out these differences totally. I have never had to change languages to express an idea in my life.

  16. Mr Punch said,

    August 30, 2010 @ 6:11 pm

    I assume that the bilingual UCM students are Americans of Latino background? That really blurs the language-culture distinction. Seems to me it'd make more sense to use native speakers of each language who are fairly fluent in the other, and have them explain scenarios and translate descriptions.

  17. Rodger C said,

    August 30, 2010 @ 6:26 pm

    ?!: "I have never had to change languages to express an idea in my life." Which is why Sapir slash Whorf were wrong and Jakobson was right. But the difference is that this distinction isn't grammaticalized in English (though my daughter, when she was little, could be said to have often used "accidentally" as a modal).

    [(myl) In fairness to Sapir, he also said that

    The outstanding fact about any language is its formal completeness … To put this … in somewhat different words, we may say that a language is so constructed that no matter what any speaker of it may desire to communicate … the language is prepared to do his work … The world of linguistic forms, held within the framework of a given language, is a complete system of reference …

    And in fairness to Whorf, he mostly (when he wasn't letting his proto-new-age sentimentality run away with him) suggested that linguistic differences would have exactly the sorts of minor biasing effects on perception and memory that Boroditsky and others have found.]

  18. aqilluqqaaq said,

    August 30, 2010 @ 7:43 pm

    Sapir slash Whorf were wrong
    As wrong as it may be to claim a causal relation between language and thought, the far grosser error is to conceive of language and thought, or language and world, as in the first instance relational at all.

  19. chris said,

    August 30, 2010 @ 9:17 pm

    I had the same question as Mr Punch: what exactly did "bilingual" mean in the context of this study?? "Bilingual" is such a vague term. It almost never refers to people who are equally "native" in two languages, since such people are exceedingly rare. Nearly everyone who gets categorized as "bilingual" will have spoken only (or mainly) one language for the first three or four years of their life, and will continue to use that language overwhelmingly in most interactions with close family members. I would have thought this to be rather important, especially in a study looking at the effects of language on the way people think.

    [(myl) Read the paper: it says that

    Monolingual participants reported learning only their native language before age 12. All bilinguals reported learning both languages before age 12, with early mean ages of first exposure (Spanish M = 2 years, English M = 4.7 years). Bilinguals reported high proficiency speaking and understanding both languages, with mean ratings for all measures above 4.4 on a scale in which 5 indicated nativelike proficiency. Bilinguals reported an average of 30 percent current daily language use in Spanish.

    This obviously covers a range of cases. It would be useful to break them down further, but it seems convincing that all of the bilinguals learned both languages in childhood, and continue to use both languages on a regular basis.]

  20. Dave M said,

    August 30, 2010 @ 10:06 pm

    For each event video and for each language, both agentive ("he popped the balloon") and non-agentive ("the balloon popped") descriptions were in principle available.

    You mean "active" and "passive," right? [ducks] =8-0

  21. Rick S said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 12:23 am

    What Mr. Punch said. I felt frustrated while reading the study that the UCM group (presumably composed predominantly of SFL speakers with at-home Latino cultural heritage) wasn't balanced by a group of EFL bilinguals with at-home U.S. cultural background growing up in Chile—though I realize it could have been hard to find a sufficiently large and homogeneous group of the latter.

    [(myl) The fact that the mean age of first Spanish exposure (2 years) in the UCM sample was lower than the mean age of first English exposure (4.7 years) suggests that more of them were EFL than SFL.]

    Speakers of Spanish…would be more likely to say "the vase broke itself" [emphasis added] just seems silly. Spanish so-called reflexive verbs (infinitive in -se) more commonly express intransitive than reflexive semantics, at least when the grammatical subject is inanimate. The correct translation is "the vase broke". Besides, "broke itself" would seem to be identifying an agent, which conflicts with the characterization of any Spanish responses as non-agentive.

    But on the other hand, if Spanish speakers really do conceive such constructions as expressing inanimate self-agents, that implies a basic flaw in the experiment: an unrecognized English-/culture-based bias toward seeing people as the agents in accidental events. Suddenly Sapir-Whorf seems more relevant, while at the same time the conclusion that Spanish speakers have a memory deficit for agency is unjustified (it's not that they don't remember agents, it's that they remember different agents). A roughly equivalent memory test for the Stanford group would be asking whether it was green-shirt-guy or tan-shirt-guy who was present when yellow- or blue-shirt-guy accidentally broke the balloon (i.e. when the balloon broke itself).

    (I'm assuming here that the term "agent" doesn't necessarily imply sentience or intention, so for instance a meteorite can be an agent. If that's wrong, please excuse.)

  22. Szwagier said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 7:05 am

    I have nothing really to add to the discussion; I just wanted to say that this is a fantastic post.

  23. Rolig said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 7:28 am

    @Dave M.: "The balloon popped" does not use the grammatical passive voice; that would be "The balloon was popped." In the sentence "The balloon popped", the verb is intransitive. One of the peculiarities of English is that the same word can often be either transitive or intransitive.

  24. Leo said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 8:06 am

    I think Dave M was being humorous.

  25. outeast said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 8:18 am

    @ Rolig

    DaveM was joking. And even went so far as to highlight that fact – twice (with 'ducks' and an emoticon).

  26. Coby Lubliner said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 10:18 am

    As a native speaker of Polish who also spoke German, Hebrew and Yiddish before making English my primary language, I can remember the mental effort it took on my part to learn that, when I thought that "something broke (itself) to me," I had to say "I broke it."

  27. David Walker said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 1:27 pm

    I do know a couple of bilinguals who learned both languages at the same time (starting at birth). One of them could speak English and Spanish before she comprehended that they were different. (If an English speaker asked her to tell someone else something in Spanish, she would tell that person (in English) the "something" and then say "but do it in Spanish"). Weird.

    I know one person who was raised trilingual from birth. His parents are each bilingual (but that results in three distinct languages: Dutch, English, and I forget the third, but it's not Spanish.)

  28. Rolig said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 3:04 pm

    I didn't get the sarcasm in DaveM's post. I thought he was doing weird math.

  29. Rodger C said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 10:17 pm

    Mark, thank you for correcting me about Sapir/Whorf; apparently I've been induced to swallow a straw man, as it were.

    Let’s note this difference can also be semanticized: “se me perdió” = “I lost it”; “lo perdí” = “I threw it away.”

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  32. Sven said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 4:10 pm

    "The first thing to say about these results is that the differences are not very big. Here's a different way to frame the same results…"

    I agree, but would go a step further. The reported result may be an example of misuse of statistical significance. I suggest sending it to Andrew Gelman, who will explain better (and more often) than anybody else why the difference between a statistically significant and insignificant results is not always statistically significant.

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