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How Language and Cognition Interact

By:   •  April 27, 2017  •  Research Paper  •  1,198 Words (5 Pages)  •  1,105 Views

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Lauren DiSalvo

Professor Erin Ingvalson

IFS 2104

April 10, 2017

Language’s Influence on Cognition

        The language we speak influences our cognitive abilities. Cross-linguistic differences and characteristics like spatial knowledge, navigational ability and time are used to prove the argument that language can impact the way we think. Comparing the different languages people speak with the way they perceive things is used in supporting this hypothesis of linguistic determinism.

        One characteristic that shows how different languages can prove that cognitive abilities are influenced by language is a person’s spatial knowledge. A person’s spatial knowledge is built up from observations gathered as they travel through the environment. It acts as a problem solver to find routes and relative positions, as well as describing an individual’s current location. Because of its importance in our everyday lives, spatial cognition is an excellent cognitive ability to represent how language affects cognition. Lera Boroditsky, a professor at Stanford University, uses her knowledge about language and cognition to investigate how the language we speak shapes the way we think. By comparing different languages around the world, she proves how these individuals process thought differently. Boroditsky started her investigation by examining the locals of a small Aboriginal community on the western edge of Cape York in northern Australia called Kuuk Thaayorre. Instead of words like right, left, forward, and back, the Kuuk Thaayorre use directional terms like north, south, east, and west to define space. For example, instead of saying, “I stubbed my right toe,” they would say something like, “I stubbed the toe on my southeast foot.” Concluded from the study was that speakers of languages like Kuuk Thaayorre are much better at staying oriented and keeping track of where they are than English speakers because of the language they speak. Having their attention trained like this makes it possible for them to perform navigational feats once thought beyond human capabilities. In Boroditsky’s study, it is proven that spatial knowledge in different languages demonstrates how language influences cognition. The language a person speaks plays a factor in how strong a person’s cognitive abilities about navigation are!

        Another characteristic that exhibits how cross-linguistics demonstrate how language influences cognition is perception of time. Another study by Boroditsky is used to establish this argument. Scientists started by branching off the knowledge that English speakers talk about duration in terms of length like, “that was a short meeting,” while Spanish and Greek speakers talk about time in terms of amount. By the end of the study, researchers agreed that English speakers are more likely to be confused by distance information, whereas Greek speakers are more likely to be confused by amount. This research about the basic cognitive ability of time perception is yet another piece of evidence that language influences cognition. As a matter of fact, Boroditsky went further with the study to make sure the linguistic differences were caused by language. In this study, the English speakers developed a new way of talking about time because of the language they were speaking and eventually their cognitive performance began to resemble that of Greek or Mandarin speakers, supporting the argument that language plays a role in constructing how we think. Learning a new language is not only learning a new way of talking; it is learning a new way of thinking.

        Another argument in favor of the belief that language influences cognition is The Whorfian Hypothesis. Scientist Benjamin Whorf believed that language determines how an individual may perceive the world and since these patterns vary widely, the modes of thinking and perceiving in groups of different language speakers will result in different world views. Being one of the most widely known linguistic scientists today, Whorf’s argument is very well supported. Specifically in his argument, Whorf claims that talking is what gives our thought processes their distinctive character and directs their reflexive potential. Our ability to refine or extend the way we think and to focus our thinking for greater clarity and power is because of our awareness of the way we talk. Awareness of other ways of talking can help us expand our conceptual skills, and in doing so, broaden our experiential universe. Benjamin Whorf supported the hypothesis that cross-linguistic differences can prove how language influences cognition in with number of experiments. This, unfortunately, gave scientists with opposing views plenty of opportunity to find flaws in the argument.

        Not everyone believes that language influences cognition. Being a widely controversial topic, an opposing view on the matter is inevitable. In particular, a book written by John H. McWorter called The Language Hoax specifically argues that an individual’s language does not influence the way they think and perceive the world. To be fair, the author does agree that the world may look different in other languages because of the interaction between language and cognition. However, McWhorter only believes this to an extent. The author mentions how The Whorfian Hypothesis uses interpretation of time in different languages and how that affects the way people think. McWhorter argues that Whorf’s conception of the Hopi language in his evidence turned out to be wrong. Unlike what Whorf has claimed, Hopi marks time as much as anyone would expect a language to, with good old-fashioned tense markers and plenty of words for things like already and afterward. Furthermore, attempts over the next few decades to reveal Native Americans as cognitively distinct from Westerners because of mental filters exerted by their languages was never truly successful. Another argument the author proposed was that the media wants the idea that language influences cognition to be true. He claimed that by believing language influences cognition, people feel as if all people are originally equal in matters of the way we think.

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