Thursday, May 25, 2017

Language and thought: Shifting the axis of the Whorfian debate

A summary of the changing axes of the debate over effects of language on cognition. (Click to see larger).

This spring I've been teaching in Stanford's study abroad program in Santiago, Chile. It's been a wonderful experience to come back to a city where I was an exchange student, and to navigate the challenges of living in a different language again – this time with a family. My course here is called "Language and Thought" (syllabus), and it deals with the Whorfian question of the relationship between cognition and language. I proposed it because effects of language on thought are often high in the mind of people having to navigate life in a new language and culture, and my own interest in the topic came out of trying to learn to speak other languages.

The exact form of the question of language and thought is one part of the general controversy surrounding this topic. But in Whorf's own words, his question was
Are our own concepts of 'time,' 'space,' and 'matter' given in substantially the same form by experience to all men, or are they in part conditioned by the structure of particular languages? (Whorf, 1941)
This question has personal significance for me since I got my start in research working as an undergraduate RA for Lera Boroditsky on a project on cross-linguistic differences in color perception, and I later went on to study cross-linguistic differences in language for number as part of my PhD with Ted Gibson.