Does Language Drive or Reflect Thought?

January 24, 2015

Different languages drive distinctive thought processes and cognitive skills. Language is the form through which human beings communicate; this communication affects a person’s perception of the world. Influential researchers such as Edward Sapir, Benjamin Lee Whorf, and Lera Boroditsky have studied this phenomenon and have even achieved quantitative results from lab research. Together Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf form the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which suggests that the language people use changes ideas or logical concepts. This position is supported by evidence from several languages and in particular from Hopi, an American-Indian language. Basically, people understand their environments and situations using the boundaries of their native languages; for example, in Hopi there is only one word for everything that flies except for birds, ranging from insects to airplanes. In all, there are two basic parts to the Sapir-Worf Hypothesis supporting the idea that language drives thought; these include the belief that thinking is determined by language and the belief that people who speak different languages perceive the world differently.


Another researcher who studies the affects of language on cognition is Lera Boroditsky, a scientist who has determined that there is a definite causal link between language and thought. One of Boroditsky’s studies demonstrates how when bilingual people switch from one language to another, they inadvertently start thinking differently, too. Moreover, if people cannot use their ability to use language in what should be a simple nonlinguistic task, their performance can change dramatically, sometimes making them look no smarter than rats or infants. For example, in recent studies, MIT students were shown dots on a screen and asked to say how many there were. If they were allowed to count normally, they answered the questions correctly. If the students simultaneously did a nonlinguistic task—like making rhythms—they still answered correctly. However, if the students did a verbal task when shown the dots—like repeating the words spoken in a news report—their counting fell apart. In other words, the students needed their language skills to conduct the basic thought processes involving counting dots. All this research shows that languages not only express thoughts, but also shape the very thoughts that are conveyed.


One opposing debater is John McWhorter, a linguist at Columbia University refutes experiments conducted by Boroditsky as he believes that the studies show minor differentials that seem to correlate with the language spoken. McWhorter goes on to declare that language does not force people to process life in a different way. However, McWhorter’s point is invalid in that language is not the only factor affecting thought but only a major component. Like studying to be a pilot or doctor, learning to speak a different language fluently can also change a person to think through a different viewpoint. Finally, another example of an opposing argument is the point that the differences in language that directly cause differences in thought may actually be due to disparities in culture, not language. To distinguish between language and culture, a lab experiment was conducted in which English speakers are taught different ways of talking about time. In this study, English speakers were taught to use size metaphors (as in Greek) to describe duration, or vertical metaphors (as in Mandarin) to describe event order. Once the English speakers had learned to talk about time in these new ways, their cognitive performance began to resemble that of Greek or Mandarin speakers. This suggests that patterns in a language can indeed play a causal role in constructing how people think.






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