“The way we speak determines how we think”. Critically evaluate this statement, drawing on the key theories and research that describe the relationship between language and thought.
Language has traditionally been characterized by Philosophers as a cognitive tool used to freely externalize ones thoughts (Green, 2010 as cited in Kaye, 2010). The relationship between language, thought, culture and reality has occupied the minds of many for centuries. Early theorists argued that language and thought were two separate systems which “enter into an array of interconnected cognitive structures” (Chomsky, 1983). Extreme nativists and constructivists are key proponents of innateness and argued that knowledge and thought hold a significant innate property which exists prior to the development of language acquisition and is dependent on thought for its development. (Fodor, 1975 cited in Green, 2010) In recent years, contrasting with this position, researchers have provided empirical evidence to support a causal relationship between both language and thought which indicates how we speak does shape how we think but also how we think can influence how we speak. (Boroditsky, 2010) The emergence of this new evidence elaborates on earlier ideas associated with the Whorfian hypothesis (Whorf, 1956 cited in Green, 2010) and focuses on an alternative approach, linguistic determinism. This essay will explore the different theoretical approaches and provide evidence which demonstrates how no one theory has provided conclusive empirical evidence that supports how we speak determines how we think.
Preliminary studies on language and thought have resulted in contributory and conflicting information which looks at the definitions and functions of language and thought, the interactions between both and the origins. Language and thought have been considered to be some of the key components which define human nature and what it means to be human. Aitchison (2007) highlighted some of the key features which define our uniqueness as humans but also certain characteristics we share with our animal relatives. Semanticity is one feature which separates us from other species. Humans use words to communicate and to represent objects and actions. In contrast animals use sounds to communicate information about a situation. For example blackbirds give a recognizable call for danger but it does not inform others of the type of danger present. Another feature which separates us from animals is creativity. Humans have the ability to understand and produce an infinite number of novel grammatical expressions with little evidence to demonstrate this skill in animals. These differences between species demonstrate the difference between language and communication and have led to other questions about how and why language acquisition was developed (Aitchison, 2007, cited in Green, 2010). Furthermore like any other psychological dichotomy, psychologists and philosophers have questioned whether language shapes our thoughts and ideas or whether our thoughts are merely represented through what we say.
One approach which argues against the notion of language influencing thought is the constructivist position. According to this approach, language is seen as an emergent property that unfolds as a result of cognitive development therefore suggesting that language may not determine how we think (Piaget, 1923, cited in Green, 2010). Evidence from Piaget’s (1923) epistemological studies demonstrates how thinking and other cognitive abilities such as symbolic play, mental imagery all exist in children before language development. However one major criticism of this theory suggests that if this idea is to be true, then children with visual or auditory impairment are likely to be handicapped in language due to insufficient sensory input. However research has indicated no difference between the rate and time which...
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