How Does Language Influence Thought?

In this video I consider the relationship between language and thought. The Whorf-Sapir hypothesis, or linguistic relativity hypothesis, suggests that one’s language influences one’s perception of the world. While evidence is mixed on just how language influences thought, there are other ways of examining the complex relationship between language, thought, and culture. It’s possible to consider how language influences thought within an individual (such as a bilingual individual) or how language influences thought within a language (such as whether Orwellian newspeak influences perception). We’ve already seen how language can influence memory (Loftus and Palmer’s car crash study) and in a future video we’ll see how language may influence decision-making.

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Video Transcript:

Hi, I’m Michael Corayer and this is Psych Exam Review. In the previous videos I’ve talked about this idea of a critical period for language acquisition which seems to be about age 7 and you may have found yourself wondering, what is it like to be someone who misses that window of time?” What does it feel like to be a child who was raised in isolation, or a deaf child in Nicaragua who was just a few years too late for this new school and this new language that emerged?

How do these people think, right? Because our own language and thought are so tied together it seems that all of our thoughts happen in language. It feels that way but we might wonder, well what exactly is this relationship between our language and how we think?

So this brings us to what’s called the Whorf Sapir hypothesis. This was proposed by Benjamin Whorf and named after Whorf and his mentor Edward Sapir. Whorf proposed that speakers of the Hopi language conceptualized time differently because of the structure of their language. This is also called the linguistic relativity hypothesis. It’s the idea that the language that you speak influences your perception of the world.

Now how would we go about testing this? Well researchers have come up with some clever ways to try to test this so they’ve looked at things like if you look at the spectrum of visible light we see that different languages divide colors in different places and so you could have two similar colors that in one language we have two words for these colors, they’re considered to be different, and in another language we use the same term for both of those colors.

So you might think well maybe this influences people’s perception of those colors, maybe it influences their memory for those colors right? I ask you to remember these, one of these two colors, if you have a different word for it that might help you versus if you don’t you might mix them up, mix up those two colors later. Or we could think about how language might influence time perception like Whorf suggested with the Hopi language. So might think well maybe reading from left to right or right to left or top to bottom maybe that influences how people perceive the passage of time, how they think about the relationship of things over time.

So researchers have looked into this and what seems to be clear is it’s not the case that there’s linguistic determinism. In other words, your language doesn’t determine how you think about the world. That’s certainly not true but there may be room for this relativity idea. It might be the case that your language has some influence on your thought but it’s difficult to assess reliably and the results of these studies have been mixed.

Now I think of this language and thought relationship occasionally when I see sort of like BuzzFeed type articles on things like untranslatable words. I always find these articles rather silly because of course the words can be translated because otherwise you couldn’t write the article. So just because we don’t have a single term for something doesn’t mean that we can’t conceptualize it, right? So just because German has schadenfreude doesn’t mean that, you know, English doesn’t have this word and therefore I can’t conceptualize taking joy in someone else’s suffering. In fact I may experience it myself from time to time.

Alright so it’s kind of silly to try to think of, well of course we can use, we might not have a single word, but we can use other words to describe the concept and that means we can think about it. But we might wonder well some of these untranslatable terms seem to have more to do with culture and cultural perceptions so bringing in the idea of culture here makes this even more complicated because

language and culture are so closely tied to one another. We certainly accept that culture influences people’s perception of the world. The way that you think is influenced by your culture, there’s really not a lot of debate on that. There’s debate on the specifics of how this occurs, but it’s generally pretty well accepted that your culture is going to influence how you think. So how do we separate language from that? We have this sort of braid of language and thought and culture and they’re all twisted together.

So how do we separate them? One thing that we can do is we can think about how language might influence thought within individuals. What do I mean by that? Well, here I’m referring to the idea that it could be the case that people who speak multiple languages think differently in those different languages. So you have the same person and different types of thoughts depending on what which language they use.

So studies have been done with bilingual individuals and one thing that’s been found in Mandarin and English bilingual individuals and English and Spanish bilingual individuals that if they take personality tests in the different languages they actually get different results. So their personality traits will change slightly depending on whether they take the test in English or in Spanish or in Mandarin.

This indicates that maybe language does influence thought, at least within individuals and then we can wonder about, well, what about within a language? So what do I mean by that? We might wonder within a language how much does word choice influence how people think about things? Is there really this influence of Orwellian Newspeak? We might think of in Beijing the haze around the city is often referred to “wu mai” which means “foggy haze” but a good deal of that haze isn’t just fog. It’s “pollution” or “wu ran” and so we might wonder, does calling it “foggy haze” influence how people think about their environment rather than if we called it pollution?

We might also wonder in more recent events whether it influences people’s thought if we call something an “alternative fact” versus a “lie” or a “distortion”. So how does word choice within a language influence how people think? We’ve actually already seen an example of this when we saw Elizabeth Loftus and John Palmer’s study on reconstructive memory. This is the idea that the wording of a question actually influenced people’s recall of the event. So when people saw this car crash video, if they were asked a question about the cars “smashing” into each other they gave a higher speed estimate than if they were asked about the cars “hitting” each other and this suggests a role of language influencing thought.

We also saw it in the follow up where a week later people remembered seeing broken glass if the word smashed had been used but they were less likely to remember seeing broken glass if the word hit had been used. This suggests a role of language on thought within a single language and this is something that we’re going to look at in a future video. We’ll look at the role of language and framing of questions on how people make decisions.

All right so we don’t have a clear answer to this question of how language influences thought but we can see some examples where it may play a role and we’ll look at those again in a future video. I hope you found this helpful, if so, please like the video and subscribe to the channel more.

Thanks for watching!