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Lera Boroditsky writes in the Edge article How does our language shape the way we think?:

Simply put, speakers of languages like Kuuk Thaayorre are much better than English speakers at staying oriented and keeping track of where they are, even in unfamiliar landscapes or inside unfamiliar buildings. What enables them — in fact, forces them — to do this is their language.

Kuuk Thaayorre is a language of natives of a tribe in Australia. Instead of left/right it uses cardinal direction. It is claimed that as a result it's speakers are much better at navigating. That skill is claimed to work even inside of unfamiliar buildings well enough that it's speakers are much better at navigating inside them.

Is there research to back up those claims?

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  • This is the premise of the recent (great) movie Arrival. I'm curious to see if there is a factual basis
    – BlueMoon93
    Jan 10 '17 at 19:57
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    How does this account for the very great differences between English-speaking individuals?
    – jamesqf
    Jan 10 '17 at 21:56
  • The Wikipedia article has two sources for this claim. Jan 14 '17 at 16:56
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See How Language Shapes Thought Scientific American (February 2011), vol. 304, pages 62-65, and the reference cited therein:

Unlike English, the Kuuk Thaayorre language spoken in Pormpuraaw does not use relative spatial terms such as left and right. Rather Kuuk Thaayorre speakers talk in terms of absolute cardinal directions (north, south, east, west, and so forth). Of course, in English we also use cardinal direction terms but only for large spatial scales. We would not say, for example, “They set the salad forks southeast of the dinner forks—the philistines!” But in Kuuk Thaayorre cardinal directions are used at all scales. This means one ends up saying things like “the cup is southeast of the plate” or “the boy standing to the south of Mary is my brother.” In Pormpuraaw, one must always stay oriented, just to be able to speak properly.

Moreover, groundbreaking work conducted by Stephen C. Levinson of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, and John B. Haviland of the University of California, San Diego, over the past two decades has demonstrated that people who speak languages that rely on absolute directions are remarkably good at keeping track of where they are, even in unfamiliar landscapes or inside unfamiliar buildings. They do this better than folks who live in the same environments but do not speak such languages and in fact better than scientists thought humans ever could. The requirements of their languages enforce and train this cognitive prowess.

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    Could you provide a link for the "groundbreaking work conducted by Stephen C. Levinson of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, and John B. Haviland of the University of California, San Diego"? I don't believe Scientific American is a peer-reviewed source, so the actual research publications would be more appropriate to link.
    – JAB
    Jan 17 '17 at 21:12
  • @JAB and see journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0956797610386621
    – DavePhD
    Jan 17 '17 at 21:38
  • The last one is neat, assigning time a spatial element is interesting.
    – JAB
    Jan 17 '17 at 21:46
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    @DavePhD These links all seem to be topical, but none of the abstracts mention experiments testing subjects' ability to orient themselves in unfamiliar locations. They all seem to be about deixis. They're interacting, but they don't seem to support the point Scientific American is making. Can you dig one up that specifically conducted experiments and published (positive) conclusions about speakers' orienting ability?
    – Dan Bron
    Jan 18 '17 at 11:36

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