Interview with Lera Boroditsky, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Stanford University and Editor in Chief of Frontiers in Cultural Psychology. She was the opening speaker at the annual statewide CATESOL conference held in Oakland in 2012.
Lera claims “Learning another language is not just a matter of learning to speak differently, it is also learning to think differently.” This connection between words and thoughts goes to the heart of teaching language, and poses questions for ESL teachers about cultural understanding.
ESL Insights: Growing up as you did speaking Russian, do you feel you are a different person when you speak a different language? Does your personality change?
Lera Boroditsky: I do feel different when speaking different languages. This is a very common experience for bilinguals to report. For example, when I am speaking Russian, I feel more free to be non-literal (metaphorical or ironic) in what I say. Russian communicative culture values clarity and directness less than standard American culture does, but values cleverness and erudition more.
So if you asked me this question in Russian, you might not have gotten the simple direct answer I just gave, and instead something more clever, abstract or absurd.
ESL Insights: Are there associations that go along with speaking in different languages? For example: you grew up in Russia, does that mean you feel more of a child when you speak the language?
Lera Boroditsky: Most of my experience speaking Russian was as a kid, living in Russia. And most of my experience speaking English has been as an adult, with a job, living in the US. Switching from English to Russian certainly cues this big switch in context. Viorica Marian at Northwestern University has shown through her research that bilinguals will recall different memories and espouse different values when they're asked in one language versus another. Language acts as a cue for cultural values and also for the contexts in which you speak those languages. This is definitely an experience I have.
ESL Insights: You mentioned in the panel discussion (above) that some people are rather suspicious of you when you speak Russian. Why do you think that is?