Share Tweet Share Email

Giovanni Bennardo: Exploring what language says about what we think

April 15, 2014
Giovanni Bennardo

Giovanni Bennardo

How people describe the physical world around them can teach you an awful lot about how they think.

That seemingly simple premise has been the foundation upon which linguistic anthropologist Giovanni Bennardo has built more than 15 years of groundbreaking research.

Recruited in 2000 to establish the Cognitive Studies Initiative at NIU, Bennardo’s work focuses on fundamental questions about language, thought and human social relations.

For instance, one of his major studies examined how individuals in Tonga do not prefer to describe the physical world around them the same way as Westerners.

A Westerner might describe a building location as “in front of me” while a Tongan would describe it being “toward the church,” with the church being the most important reference point in the village. That type of thinking, which discourages individuals from putting themselves first, influences a number of mental processes and might help explain why, for instance, the move from monarchy to democracy in the South Pacific’s last island kingdom has been a very slow process.

His latest work is examining the fundamental role played by space in the construction of cultural models of nature across many cultures in populations affected by climate change and in search of sustainable  responses.

Bennardo’s interdisciplinary approach to the relationship between language, culture and cognition, and the innovative methodology he has created and used over the years have helped him develop an international reputation. This spring, he has been invited to lecture in China; next fall, he will be a visiting researcher and professor at the University of Verona in Italy.

The breadth and depth of his work, and in particular his ability to lead cross-disciplinary teams, have made him one of the most respected researchers in his field.

“The shortest and most succinct way to state my evaluation is to say that Professor Bennardo is, in my experience, one of the two best anthropologists of his generation,” said Dwight W. Read, who is himself a Distinguished Research Professor at UCLA.