the relationship between language and thought

Critically evaluate this statement, drawing on the key theories and research that describe the relationship between language and thought. Language has traditionally been characterized by Philosophers as a cognitive tool used to freely externalize ones thoughts (Green, 2010 as cited in Kaye, 2010). The relationship between language, thought, culture and reality has occupied the minds of many for centuries. Early theorists argued that language and thought were two separate systems which “enter into an array of interconnected cognitive structures” (Chomsky, 1983).

Extreme nativists and constructivists are key proponents of innateness and argued that knowledge and thought hold a significant innate property which exists prior to the development of language acquisition and is dependent on thought for its development. (Fodor, 1975 cited in Green, 2010) In recent years, contrasting with this position, researchers have provided empirical evidence to support a causal relationship between both language and thought which indicates how we speak does shape how we think but also how we think can influence how we speak. Boroditsky, 2010) The emergence of this new evidence elaborates on earlier ideas associated with the Whorfian hypothesis (Whorf, 1956 cited in Green, 2010) and focuses on an alternative approach, linguistic determinism. This essay will explore the different theoretical approaches and provide evidence which demonstrates how no one theory has provided conclusive empirical evidence that supports how we speak determines how we think.

Preliminary studies on language and thought have resulted in contributory and conflicting information which looks at the definitions and functions of language and thought, the interactions between both and the origins. Language and thought have been considered to be some of the key components which define human nature and what it means to be human. Aitchison (2007) highlighted some of the key features which define our uniqueness as humans but also certain characteristics we share with our animal relatives. Semanticity is one feature which separates us from other species. Humans use words to communicate and to represent objects and actions.

In contrast animals use sounds to communicate information about a situation. For example blackbirds give a recognizable call for danger but it does not inform others of the type of danger present. Another feature which separates us from animals is creativity. Humans have the ability to understand and produce an infinite number of novel grammatical expressions with little evidence to demonstrate this skill in animals. These differences between species demonstrate the difference between language and communication and have led to other questions about how and why language acquisition was developed (Aitchison, 2007, cited in Green, 2010).

Furthermore like any other psychological dichotomy, psychologists and philosophers have questioned whether language shapes our thoughts and ideas or whether our thoughts are merely represented through what we say. One approach which argues against the notion of language influencing thought is the constructivist position. According to this approach, language is seen as an emergent property that unfolds as a result of cognitive development therefore suggesting that language may not determine how we think (Piaget, 1923, cited in Green, 2010).

Evidence from Piaget’s (1923) epistemological studies demonstrates how thinking and other cognitive abilities such as symbolic play, mental imagery all exist in children before language development. However one major criticism of this theory suggests that if this idea is to be true, then children with visual or auditory impairment are likely to be handicapped in language due to insufficient sensory input. However research has indicated no difference between the rate and time which impaired children obtain their earliest words compared with seeing children. Bigelow, 1987; Nelson, 1973) Although this evidence rejects Piaget’s (1923) theory, considerations need to be applied for parents of visually impaired children compensating for the impairment. Further issues with Piaget’s (1923) theory suggests that if certain levels of cognitive development are required to assist language ability, then his notion of object permanence should precede the acquisition of concepts and objects Xu (2002) research found opposite results to Piaget’s (1923) ideas which demonstrate how a child as early as 9 months old was capable of distinguishing between two objects.

Because of this conflicting information, it is difficult to assign a causal relationship between language and thought within this framework (Xu, 2002, cited in Green, 2010). In addition, the extreme nativist approach led by Fodor (1983), postulates that all concepts are innate and we possess language syntax of thought. His key ideas are centered on the content of concepts and the structure of propositions. Fodor (1983) proposed that some cognitive systems (language) are modular and interface with non-modular central systems such as memory and thinking.

One of the main aspects of interest in Fodor’s (1983) framework is the acquisition of concepts. Unlike empiricists who argue that children proceed through a process of inductive generalization to understand a new concept, Fodor (1983) suggests that this is not the case and that concepts are innately pre-programmed and not learnt (Russell, 2004 cited in Green, 2010) He describes vocabulary acquisition as attaching names to pre-existing categories and concepts which are broken down into components until the end point is reached.

He also explains how new or complex concepts are developed (. i. e. ipad) by decomposition into their basic elemental components. From this, it would suggest that language develops from already pre-existing concepts or thoughts which would show the directional flow of influence to come from thought rather than speech. Chomsky (2006) is also a staunch proponent for the nativist approach and offers complimentary ideas to Fodor’s (1983) theory on innateness.

He argued that the syntax of language is innate and that a universal grammar underpins language. The theory suggested that linguistic ability manifests itself without being taught, and that there are properties that all natural human languages share (Chomsky, 2006). Exploration of this hypothesis focused on word order, structure and parameters. Universally the random order of words differs amongst cultures. For example in English we use subject-verb-object language compared with those in Japanese who use Subject-Object-Verb.

Chomsky (2006) argued that although the mental grammar differs from language to language, the process by which certain sentences are perceived as correct while others are not is universal and independent of meaning. He also argued that language acquisition is obtained through an innate language acquisition device. His theory later evolved into principles and parameters theory and looked at the abstract rules applied when learning a language. One of the key tenets of Chomsky’s (2006) theory is that language is independent of cognition and does not influence how we think.

Criticisms of his theory are highlighted as complete disregard for meaning and the social aspects or environment at which a child first acquires its words. Other critiques look at evidence produced by children with a hearing impairment. Questions surround what kind of parameters they would apply when using sign language. If Chomsky’s (2006) theory is to be correct then, it does not explain how children who learn two languages at once can apply parameter settings (Messer, 2000 cited in Green, 2010).

Contrasting with the nativist approach, linguistic determinism argued in support for the notion that language influences or even determines how we speak. These ideas were first presented in the early 1930’s by Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, who studied how languages vary and proposed ways that speakers of different tongues may think differently. Due to lack of empirical evidence at the time, their ideas of determinism (Whorfian hypothesis) were rejected but later reinstated with a weaker, less controversial notion of linguistic relativism, suggesting how language influences thought rather than determines it. Green, 2010) Firstly many of the early studies supporting Whorf’s hypothesis derived from studies of colour perception and naming. Brown and Lenneberg, (1954) found cross-cultural differences in the speed of colour naming and recognition, related to colour terms in different languages, though the study found correlations rather than a causal relationship.

Additionally later research by Roberson et al, (2000) in the Berinmo people of Papua New Guinea showed findings which do support the Whorfian hypothesis and showed evidence for an effect of language on colour perception (Green, 2010, p. 66-372). Secondly more recent experiments carried out by Boroditsky, Winawer, Withoff, Frank and Wu (2007) investigated whether linguistic differences led to differences in colour discrimination between Russian and English speakers. Unlike English speakers, Russian speakers divide the colour terms on the spectrum differently. For example Russian speakers make a distinct differentiation between lighter blues and darker blues whereas English speakers would categories all colours of blue under on label.

The experiment measured colour discrimination performance using a basic perceptual task. The results showed that Russian speakers were faster to discriminate two colours if they were part of the different linguistic categories in Russian than if the two colours were from the same category. Further effects of language were seen with English speakers who did not show any category advantage under any condition hence demonstrating how categories in language can affect performance of colour discrimination or how we speak can influence how we think.

Thirdly research has also investigated spatial cognition and non-linguistic tasks and has shown how different cultures spatialize time depending on the available spatial representations (Green, 2010, p. 368). For example Dutch speakers use right and left in relation to object-centered frames of reference compared with the Mayan people of South America who use the compass points (North,South,East,West) for both geographic and object-centered frames of reference.

Brown and Levinson (1993) conducted a study to investigate if these different frames of reference influenced the encoding of spatial relationships. The results showed that Dutch and Tzeltal (Mayan) speakers showed differences in reconstruction of a spatial array of objects, depending on encoding in their language which provides support for the Whorfian hypothesis and also shows how we speak can influence how we think. One critique of this experiment is the location of the task was not considered.

Li and Gleitman (2002) argued that changing the environment in which spatial tasks occur can change the frame of reference used. The results from their study did demonstrate that within a different environment, participants chose to use a relative frame of reference hence highlighting the importance or significance of environmental factors in determining the frame used. Finally Boroditsky, (2001) also looked at the concept of time and whether aspects of language and culture influence how we think about this domain.

Her study investigated how Mandarin and English speakers represent time and whether temporal metaphors differ between the two groups. English and Mandarin speakers both use horizontal (front/back) spatial terms to talk about time but differ in the use of vertical (up/down) spatial terms which are used by Mandarin speakers but not English speakers. Participants from both groups were asked to verify statements in English about temporal relationships from a scene containing objects that were arranged either along the vertical or horizontal dimension.

The results showed that both groups organize time from left to right which is consistent with their writing direction but also that Mandarin speaker’s show evidence of vertical representation of time with earlier events represented further up after vertical priming and no evidence for this in English speakers. The results of this study provide evidence for cross-cultural differences in temporal reasoning and also support for language influencing thought. However compelling this evidence is, these findings have not been replicated in later studies.

To conclude, it is clear that the above recent evidence provides support that demonstrates a transactional or causal relationship between both thought and language however due to the lack of successful replication of these results and the requirement for further investigation, once cannot conclude the notion of linguistic determinism. The way we speak does not determine how we think, but is more influential in shaping some aspects and in both directions. One must also consider that certain aspects of this cognitive process are indeed innate, that we are designed with a pre-disposition to develop language as a means of communication.

It is also possible that both innateness and linguistic determinism explain different components of the same process, depending on the situation and context we find ourselves in. As the field of cognitive psychology progresses and further evidence is provided we may be able to settle on one explanation or another.