Saturday, June 27, 2009

Space and Thought

(two of Boroditsky's stimuli, pdf here)

Yet again, Andrew Sullivan treads into the area of linguistics and cognition research. But at least this time he's wise enough to make no comments about the studies he links to (he's typically misguided, or flat out wrong in his linguistic sensibilities, see here, here and here).

This time he reprints a quote here from an article titled How Does Our Language Shape The Way We Think? written by Stanford assistant professor Lera Boroditsky regarding how language influences thought. Of course, Sullivan reprints the least interesting piece of information in the article, a mere behavioral anecdote about how speakers of different languages use different direction terms. This fact has been well known for a long time (I first learned about it in an introductory cog sci course in 1998 and it was old news then). The more interesting fact is the following effect she observed during a test to compare Russian and English speakers' ability to discriminate shades of blue (color terms is a classic topic within cognitive science going back to Berlin & Kay's work in the sixties, see here):

The disappearance of the advantage when performing a verbal task shows that language is normally involved in even surprisingly basic perceptual judgments — and that it is language per se that creates this difference in perception between Russian and English speakers.

After skimming Boroditsky's article, I felt had it was a very good review of the field of language and thought studies as I remember it, but it didn't add much, if anything, but it's clearly a layperson's article, so I looked at her Stanford page and skimmed her list of publications and more critically, the references she cites.

My first impression was, "she doesn't cite much, does she?" I'm used to experimental psychology articles containing lists of references almost as long as the article itself, but most of her (first author) papers have a handful of citations. But the more surprising thing was the notable absence of two names, Len Talmy and Jürgen Bohnemeyer. I'll grant that I'm a little biased because both of them were professor's at my grad school, but the granting ends there. I can't imagine writing a serious research paper on how language shapes thought without references to one or both of these researchers, especially as Talmy has written an extensive, typologically rich, two volume set on the relationship between language ands thought: Toward a Cognitive Semantics and he has a forthcoming book The Attention System of Language (his work in progress handout on the same topic can be read in this pdf).

Don't get me wrong, I basically like Boroditsky's research methods and approach. I just think it's time for her to review Talmy and Bohnemeyer.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Not impressed with this gripe "I wish she thought more like me" article...

Chris said...

Anonymous, thanks for the comment.

Well, it may be the case that you're not impressed, but let's be clear about my claim. My post did not criticize her thinking, at all (it was far more critical of Sullivan, and deservedly so).

Nor did it present a griping comparison between her thinking and my own. Quite the opposite, I first say that her Russian color terms results were "interesting" and then I finish by writing "Don't get me wrong, I basically like Boroditsky's research methods and approach."

My "gripe" was directed at her thoroughness of literature review; I think it's perfectly fair to hold any assistant professor (at Stanford and MIT nonetheless) to at least as high a standard of review thoroughness as a first year graduate student, and she seems to have not lived up to that standard, at least as far as most of her first-author papers listed on her web page are concerned. And I stand by that.

Anonymous said...

-My "gripe" was directed at her thoroughness of literature review; I think it's perfectly fair to hold any assistant professor (at Stanford and MIT nonetheless) to at least as high a standard of review thoroughness as a first year graduate student, and she seems to have not lived up to that standard, at least as far as most of her first-author papers listed on her web page are concerned. And I stand by that."

Perhaps she doesn't have to be held to as high of a standard as a first-year graduate student, because she is one of the ppl who holds those students to that standard.

She is a professor at Harvard. She has the right to be as "unthorough" in her lit review as editors will allow her to be.

Her own ideas and conclusions are creative. She has the right to write articles and share her thoughts without having to borrow from the thoughts of others.

There is nothing set in stone in Psychology or Linguistics. Each field is still very much ripe for original interpretation.

Chris said...

Anonymous, thanks for the viewpoint. I certainly don't want to be unfair. Boroditsky has managed to build an impressive career so far.

But let's be clear, I never challenged her "right" to publish or be "unthorough" (though being "unthorough" is generally a bad career move in academia).

I'm did question the wisdom of so narrow a focus, and I stand by that. For exactly the reason you seem to dismiss: she may well be "borrowing" from others without realizing it. I don't mean plagiarism, but I mean repetition and reinventing the wheel. Her research topic (language, space and time) is not unique to her, but rather has been the focus of cognitive linguistics for decades. It hardly seems unfair to ask her to do due diligence.

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