Thinking & Language, Language Influences Thinking


Posted by: Courteney

Key Terms:

  • linguistic determinism: Whorf’s hypothesis that language determines the way we think.


Language and thinking are significantly relevant to each other.

What comes first? Ideas or
Do our ideas come first, and next the words that correspond to them, or do we think in terms of words?

In 1956, a linguist named Benjamin Lee Whorf ( in the photograph above) created his linguistic determinism hypothesis which stated that different languages produces different concepts of reality.

linguistic determinism: Whorf’s hypothesis that language determines the way we think.

Whorf’s hypothesis does not apply to people who speak only one language and view language just as a form of expressing thoughts.
Those who speak two languages often see that people tend to think different in each language.

(For most of us, the difference between when we think in English and when we think in Korean or English and Spanish, etc.).

Many bilinguals or polyglots report that they have a different “self” depending on the language that they are using.

When bilingual people were given the same personality tests in their two different languages, but the results came out differently.

When a group of Chinese born Canadians were asked to describe themselves in English and Chinese, it was revealed that
in English they described themselves according to Canadian values while they described themselves according to Chinese values when speaking in Chinese. (The language that they were thinking in influenced how they viewed themselves.

Language obviously influences culture; and culture, language.

However, it is
not correct to aver that language determines thought. For example, we do not perceive the color “yellow” or the shape “square” differently in different languages. The words do influence the way we think though--like if a language has two words for yellow or square.

Another example of how language influences thoughts is the use of “he” to include both he and she. Read the following sentence: “The secretary answered his calls”; the sentence may sound a bit strange because secretaries are usually women in the stereotypes.

Since language has an imperative impact on thought, vocabulary building is an important part of improving the ability to think. Children often learn language and thought hand-in-hand.

In Canada, children were taught mostly in French for the first 3 years of school--gradually decreasing the amo
unt of materials taught in French; children became fluent in French and English and they also excelled in aptitude tests, math, and appreciation of culture.

The increase of words in sign language has also benefited deaf people since the addition of words improved their language, and in turn, their thought processes.

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Someone's home video of a 2-3 year old child, the level of language of the child matches his level of cognitive thought.

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