Harper Lecture: John Lucy on Taking Perspectives: Language,Thought and Life in the College

John Lucy explains the University of Chicago approach at the Center in Beijing.

All day


John Lucy discussed his research on the relation of language and thought. In particular, comparing the language and thought of Mayan speakers from southern Mexico with English speakers in the United States.   He drew some general lessons from this research about the value of being able to take different perspectives on the world and the ways it can be accomplished.   Lastly, he explained how a University of Chicago education implements some of these same lessons both within its Common Core programs and within its residential housing system.   The common thread was the importance of valuing diverse perspectives.

John Lucy is with the University of Chicago Department of Comparative Development, teaching courses entitled Theories of Self, Language Socialization, Spoken Yucatec Maya and Language, Culture and Thought.  His research interests include: using cross-cultural and developmental perspectives to explore the interface among the symbolic structures we call language, culture, and self, the impact of grammatical diversity on thought and the particular importance of metalinguistic capabilities in human social interaction, the role of language in the development of conceptual thought and self during middle childhood and languages and cultures of the Mayan peoples.

As it turned out, the children were making word choices based on the inferences of their language at four or five, but they weren’t guiding their general cognition by it. At some point language and thought connect so that language is used to guide one’s general thinking—we observed this change around eight years of age, plus or minus a year. When we studied seven-year-olds in America and the Yucatán, the two groups showed similar results. But when we studied nine-year-olds, the populations looked different….

Important traits that are universal and biological are what get kids everywhere started. But that doesn’t mean that other important traits don’t emerge later, traits that are culturally and socially shaped. The seven-year-olds in our study tested alike, but they didn’t test alike a year or two later.