Language shapes our abilities

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Can you close your eyes and point southwest? If you can’t, it’s not because humans are biologically worse at orientation than other animals. It’s because language shapes our cognitive ability.

An English speaker organizes time and space relative to the person with directions like left and right. However, the Kuuk Thaayorre people of Australia organize time and space relative to the landscape, always using cardinal directions. For example, a request could be, “Move your cup to the north-northeast.” The common greeting is, “Which way are you going?” And yes, they can close their eyes and point southwest — showing that language impacts not just how we see the world, but also our abilities.

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