This American Life: Becoming a Badger

“This week, stories about people trying their best to turn themselves into something else—like a badger. Or a professional comedian, in a language they didn’t grow up speaking,” on the This American Life podcast.

Scientist Charles Foster wanted to get into the heads of animals, so he did it by spending weeks trying to live life as a badger, sleeping in a burrow and crawling around on the forest floor with his eyes blindfolded, getting by on just his sense of smell. And he ate what badgers eat — worms.

Also: “French comedian Gad Elmaleh is known as the Jerry Seinfeld of France. He sells out arenas. Gets recognized on the street. But he’s deciding to give all of that up to try to make it big in America. In English, which he hasn’t totally mastered. And what’s funny in French, to French people, is not the same as what’s funny in English, to Americans.”

And a New York terrier tries to rediscover his roots as a rat-hunter.

Becoming a Badger – This American Life podcast

“Slaying, yet again, the idea that the languages we speak shape the thoughts we think.”

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis holds that language shapes the way we think. It’s an obsolete linguistic theory, but it’s going strong in other disciplines and in pop culture:

Perhaps the most famous invocation of Sapir-Whorf is the claim that because Eskimos have dozens of words for snow, they have a mental apparatus that equips them differently—and, one assumes, better—than, say, Arabs, to perceive snow. (I once watched the wintry film Fargo with an Egyptian who called everything from snowflakes to windshield-ice talg—the same word she used for the ice cube in her drink.) To get a hint of why nearly all modern linguists might reject this claim, consider the panoply of snow-words in English (sleet, slush, flurry, whiteout, drift, etc.), and the commonsense question of why we would ever think to attribute Eskimos’ sophisticated and nuanced understanding of snow to their language, rather than the other way around. (“Can you think of any other reason why Eskimos might pay attention to snow?” Harvard’s Steven Pinker once asked.)

A Dozen Words for Misunderstood: Language and Thoughts