Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A Sense of Direction

I can't stop thinking about a fascinating article called "Does Your Language Shape How You Think?" that I read in the New York Times about a month ago.  Did you see it?  In case you're not up to reading a whole article about linguistics and cultural relativity, here's a brief description of the part that thoroughly amazed me:

English speakers use two primary ways to give directions and describe spacial relations, egocentric (left, right, in front, behind) and geographic (North, South, East, West, etc.).  We rely mostly on egocentric directions, but there are other languages scattered across the globe that rely entirely on geographic directions!  People in those cultures say things like, "Could you scoot over a little to the southwest, so I can sit there?" and "Look at that interesting rock just northeast of your southern foot."  While we may experience two different spaces as identical (the article describes matching hotel rooms across the hall from each other), people who use the geographic system will see the rooms as completely different from each other (the bed on the north end of one room and the south end of the other).  Do they have a less egocentric view of life?  The article describes that they even point at their chests to mean "in the direction behind me," as though they are pointing through themselves.

People in those cultures have an incredibly accurate internal compass that they rely on constantly to understand their surroundings.  They start using geographic directions at around age 2 and have the system down by the age of 7 or 8.  Even in total darkness or when they are very dizzy, they still can reliably identify the cardinal directions.  They don't need to stop and check the sun, or see what side of a tree the moss is growing on, they just know.

Do you know which way is north?  I always felt like I had a good sense of the cardinal directions.  I grew up in Southern California where the sun was usually shining, and there were mountains and other easy-to-see orienting landmarks.  When I moved to Connecticut for college, I became disoriented easily.  There were so many trees that I couldn't see a great distance, and the small swatches of visible sky were often hazy.  (There may be some other reasons why I became directionless in college, but that's a different story...)  Even my friends who grew up there could not tell me which way was north, and it didn't seem to bother them.

I am intrigued by how children in those geographic cultures learn the directions.  Is it like learning a language?  Does the window of opportunity for developing an internal compass close?  If I tell my baby, "Look at that bird in the east!" will he start developing an innate ability to orient himself in space?


  1. Fascnating. I've never heard of this before and didn't see the article either. I have the same questions you do. Maybe you could try teaching it, but just make sure you're telling him the correct geographical locations.

  2. i have a really poor sense of direction when lost in the woods
    I wonder what that means?


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