Posts Tagged ‘Sapir-Whorf’

Language and thought

August 4, 2010 24 comments

Does language shape thought? Or does our way of thinking is one regardless of the language we speak? Can we think of an object, or a concept if we don’t know the words to use for such? What happens then, when we know for sure we want to convey a thought but we don’t know the exact words to do so? These are all very interesting questions, or at least some people think so. Not so long ago, I read a text about a Stanford cognitive scientist called Lera Boroditsky (click here to read it) in which she it was said that the way we speak actually influences the way we think.

This is not communication (by mollybob)

In the same text, they talk about Chomsky and we can read that Noam Chomsky “argued that all languages share the same deep structure of thought and that thought has a universal quality separate from language.” Stephen Pinker, in his The Language Instinct: How The Mind Creates Language, mentions Mentalese, and says that “knowing a language, then, is knowing how to translate mentalese into strings of words and vice versa. People without a language would still have mentalese.” (Pinker, 2007:73)

Another article called my attention a couple of weeks ago. This time, it wasn’t an article written about Lera Boroditsky, but an article written by her (and you can read it here). Lera again mentioned Chomsky and the idea of Universal Grammar and explained a bit about her research. And if she’s right, would it make any sense to say that what we read in David Crystal’s The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language is very unlikely to be true from now on? Crystal (2010:15) says, “but in its [Sapir-Whorf hypothesis] strongest form, it is unlikely to have any adherents now.”

Now, if Lera Boroditsky is right, what would that mean to language teaching and learning? If Chomsky and his UG hypothesis aren’t exactly what happens, and if L1 makes a big difference in terms of reasoning and verbal thought, does this mean it makes much more sense for anyone to learn a foreign language with a non-NEST who thinks like his or her students? What, then, of the many theories of language learning and teaching which have been generalised to different languages, are they still true? Or, does this even matter at all? Should I be writing about it and should you be reading it? Oh, and do the words I’ve chosen to write as a Brazilian really convey my message to speakers of other languages?

There are just too many questions, and perhaps someone will eventually find more evidence to support such and such point of view. However, all these questionings got me thinking about the idea of the ‘inner voice’, or the rush to speak. Jeremy Harmer talked about this in his workshop at the Braz-TESOL, and he made reference to members of his (or our, as these two are also part of mine) PLN: @kalinagoenglish and @TEFLPet and gave them due credit during the talk. Getting our learners to have internal conversations might be extremely beneficial for their language learning. Scott Thornbury in How to Teach Vocabulary (and this had to be one of the books I haven’t got at the moment) also mentions some strategies that work to help students learn vocabulary items, and one of these is to give them time to silently pronounce the words in their mind before asking them to instantly repeat them.

There clearly is a link between language and thought, and, to quote Crystal (2010:14), “a simple answer is not possible”. But there are some things that spring to mind:

  1. Teachers ought to allow time for individual work and mental processing in class.
  2. The role of teachers who share the same language and culture with learners should be highlighted.
  3. By learning a second language, we’re also learning a new way of thinking and analysing situations we face.
  4. An integrative orientation towards learning a second language have much higher importance.

Lots and lots of questions and thoughts and questions about this topic. Before I hand it over to you, I’d just like to finish saying that learning a language is a lot more than learning the words and even the culture of where such language is spoken. Learning a language is a way of broadening your view of the world because it adds to your own mental structure and enables you to think differently.



  • Crystal, D. (2010), The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language (3rd edition), Cambridge: CUP
  • Pinker, S. (2007), The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language, New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics
  • Thornbury, S (2002), How to Teach Vocabulary, Longman
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