Linguistic Relativity Today
Linguistic relativity is the idea that the language you speak affects how you think. A lot of people know this as the “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis” or “Whorfianism” after one of its earliest proponents, Benjamin Whorf. Many people think that linguistic relativity has died out, that it has been disproven, or that it is generally accepted as nonsense. This is far from the truth.
However, the focus of linguistic relativity has changed radically. Previously, it was about “worldview,” a nebulous term that few people took the time to really develop. Today, researchers are looking into specific cognitive effects of language, and in very specific areas. For example, my supervisor has studied the difference in color perception between Greeks (who have twelve basic color terms) and English speakers (who have eleven). He found that there are slight differences in how they perceive color (if you are wondering how this is measured, it is often through reaction times on various tasks).
I have also mentioned Lera Boroditsky several times in my posts — she does a lot of research into metaphors of space and time and how they differ between languages. She has also found that this affects how people think about time. More recent investigations have been into motion perception, and have included languages ranging from English and Spanish to German, Czech, Swedish, and Algerian Arabic. The differences in these languages affect how speakers think about motion events that they perceive.
You may be wondering how we can tell that people think about something differently. This is a point of some contention, but there is a general consensus among researchers in this field that certain tasks are cognitively non-linguistic, meaning that linguistic parts of the mind and brain are not engaged in them. (Though this assumes that there are, in fact, processes that are non-linguistic, which some people disagree with.) And, depending on who you ask, this is the kind of thought we are talking about when we say that two people “think differently.”
For example, similarity judgment is often touted as a non-linguistic task: If you are presented with three different items, you can, theoretically, choose the two that are most similar without using language in any way. Memory is another one: The things that you remember are not always tied to language. Of course, these things are open to debate, but there is a general, if tentative, agreement on them at the moment. And, as I mentioned earlier, verbal interference tasks also prevent the use of linguistic information during a task.
These are the kinds of things that researchers have participants do to determine “how they think”. There are a lot of factors at play here, and there is a lot of room for debate over how valid these methods are.
The kinds of things that are being studied by relativity researchers today are quite minor in the grand scheme of things. What is the big deal if two different language groups think about color a little differently? If speakers of Swedish are slightly more likely to remember the endpoint of a movement than speakers of English, what does that tell us about anything?
I don’t have good answers to these questions — I can only say that we are looking into it. If nothing else, we are gaining a better appreciation of cognition and how the human mind works, which is certainly a good thing. The more we understand the mind, the brain, and the relationship between the two, the better we will be equipped to answer questions (potentially those concerned with pathology) about them in the future.
Anyway, I felt compelled, as a linguistic relativity researcher, to write this to help shed some light on what might be a few misperceptions on the field. I look forward to reading your comments and answering any questions you might have on this topic!
Athanasopoulos P, & Bylund E (2013). Does grammatical aspect affect motion event cognition? A cross-linguistic comparison of English and Swedish speakers. Cognitive science, 37 (2), 286-309 PMID: 23094696
Boroditsky L, Fuhrman O, & McCormick K (2011). Do English and Mandarin speakers think about time differently? Cognition, 118 (1), 123-9 PMID: 21030013
Gilbert AL, Regier T, Kay P, & Ivry RB (2006). Whorf hypothesis is supported in the right visual field but not the left. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 103 (2), 489-94 PMID: 16387848
Slobin, D. I. (1996). From “thought and language” to “thinking for speaking”. In J. J. Gumperz, S. C. Levinson (Eds.), Rethinking Linguistic Relativity (pp. 70–96). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press