Language and Thought

Can we think about something without knowing its name? Does the language we speak change how we see the world? The relationship between thought and language might be a complicated one. Psychologists often attribute varying degrees of importance to the role of language in the development of cognition and vice versa. In this explanation, we will compare how different theories conceptualise this relationship. 

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Contents
Table of contents

    The relationship between Language and Thought, a group of different people talking, StudySmarterLanguage and thought have a complex relationship, freepik.com

    • First, we will discuss language and thought in psychology.
    • We will delve into the relationship between language and thought, highlighting the theories of language and thought as we go along.
    • Finally, we will discuss some of the famous theorists involved in the relationship between language and thought, namely Piaget, Chomsky, and Vygotsky, whilst also covering the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

    Language and Thought Psychology

    Language is one of the systems through which we communicate, and it typically involves communicating through sounds and written communication with the use of symbols, but it can also involve our bodies (body language, how we smile, move, and approach people are all forms up for interpretation in the game of language).

    Language is often closely related to the culture that uses it and reflects culturally relevant ideas.

    Many languages have words that are not present at all in others.

    For example, there is no English equivalent to the German word schadenfreude, which refers to the experience of pleasure caused by witnessing another person's adversity.

    As we also tend to think using language, Sapir-Whorf theorised that the language we use will affect how we see and think of the world. However, Piaget highlights that children develop schemas before they are capable of speaking, suggesting that cognitive processes do not depend on language.

    Relationship Between Language and Thought

    Different theories propose different relationships between language and thought. Piaget's theory of cognitive development argues that children's ability to use language and the content of their speech depends on their stage of cognitive development.

    In contrast, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis proposes that the language we use to communicate determines how we think of the world around us, affecting cognitive processes like memory and perception.

    Theories of Language and Thought

    The two main theories representing different perspectives on language and thought you should know about are Piaget's theory and the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

    Piaget's stage theory of cognitive development

    According to Piaget's theory, language is preceded by and depends on thought. Before children can use words correctly they need to first develop an understanding of the concepts behind them.

    This occurs through the development of schemas, a process which precedes language development.

    Schemas refer to mental frameworks that guide children's behaviour and expectations.

    According to this view, to communicate their dislike of broccoli, a child needs to first develop a schema about not liking it. Having developed the schema and expectations about how broccoli tastes the child can express their dislike.

    Children can be taught phrases like "no broccoli" before they ever see or try it but they won't be able to use it in a meaningful way until they understand what the phrase means.

    The stage of a child's cognitive development will also limit their ability to communicate meaningfully. In this way, language depends on thoughts.

    For example, a child who is not yet able to mentally represent the perspective of another person will not be able to talk about it or account for it when they talk to others.

    Let's take a look at how the linguistic abilities of a child correspond to their stage of cognitive development.

    Stage of developmentAgeLanguage development
    Sensorimotor stage - children explore the world through their senses and motor movements.0-2 yearsChildren are able to imitate sounds and vocalise their demands.
    Preoperational stage - children begin to think symbolically, form ideas and represent images mentally. Children may not be able to reason logically and see beyond their egocentric perspective.2-7 yearsChildren begin to use private speech, which according to Piaget reflects their egocentrism. They still lack the ability to maintain a two-way conversation and take the perspective of the other person they communicate with.
    Concrete operational stage - children start to recognise the perspectives of others but may still struggle with some logical thought and abstract ideas.7-11 yearsChildren start to adopt the perspectives of others in conversations. The conversations they engage in are limited to discussing concrete things. Children recognise how events are placed in time and space.
    Formal operational stage - children are able to reason hypothetically, and logically, think abstractly and solve problems in a systematic manner.12+ yearsChildren can discuss abstract ideas and see different perspectives.

    Evaluation of the theories of language and thought

    While Piaget's theory appears to make sense and has some face validity, it generally lacks empirical support. This is due to the difficulties of studying cognitive and thought processes like schema development in pre-linguistic children.

    The concept of universal stages of cognitive development has also been widely criticised. Some studies have found that children can attain many of these developmental milestones earlier than proposed by Piaget.

    Differences in cognitive development have also been found across cultures, suggesting that Piaget's idea of cognitive development was culturally biased (Mangan, 1978).

    The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis

    The central idea behind the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is that our native language affects how we think about the world. The words we use to create narratives about the world influence how we represent it internally.

    According to this view, we can only hold mental representations of the concepts we can name. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis supports the idea of linguistic determinism.

    Linguistic determinism is the idea that the language we use determines and constrains how we think about the world. The weaker version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has been termed linguistic relativity, this idea proposes that while language may not completely determine our thoughts it can influence them to some extent.

    Whorf supported his claims with research on native American cultures. He proposed that differences in language can change how a culture understands the concept of time or how it perceives natural phenomena.

    Whorf argued that the Native American Hopi culture lacks an understanding of the concept of time. He attributed this to the lack of terminology that places events in time in their language. According to his theory, the lack of linguistic expression of time changed the way this culture thought of and understood time.

    He also pointed to the fact that the Inuit language has a lot more words for snow than the English language, suggesting that the Inuit culture perceives snow differently from Europeans and is able to distinguish between different types of snow.

    Evaluation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis

    The original examples in support of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis have been refuted. It was found that the Hopi language does have a way of expressing time. Moreover, the number of Inuit word's for snow has been shown to be largely exaggerated by Whorf as the true number is around 4.

    However, later psycholinguistics research has found some evidence of differences in memory and perception across speakers of different languages, supporting linguistic relativism.

    Studies have found that our native language can influence how we remember past events as well as how good we are at recognising differences between colours.

    Fausey and Boroditsky (2011) investigated the memory of intentional and accidental events in English and Spanish speakers. Both groups remembered the person responsible for intentional actions equally well. However, English speakers had a much better memory of the agent behind the accidental action compared to Spanish speakers.

    The difference in memory found in the study of Fausey and Boroditsky (2011) was attributed to linguistic differences between English and Spanish. In Spanish accidents are typically described with non-agentive language. For example, Spanish speakers would use the expression "A pen broke" instead of "A man broke the pen" to describe a pen accidentally breaking.

    Winawer et al. (2006) investigated the ability of English and Russian speakers to discriminate between different shades of blue. The different shades have distinct names in the Russian language, but not in the English language.

    Russian speakers were much better at discriminating between the colours. This effect was attributed to how the Russian language categorises the shades of blue.

    The relationship between Language and Thought, girl thinking about memories in bubbles around her head, StudySmarterMemory and language can shape how we interpret the world, freepik.com

    Other Theories of Language and Thought

    Other developmental conceptualisations of language include the theories of Chomsky and Vygotsky. Chomsky focuses on how children acquire linguistic abilities at such a young age. Vygotsky's theory highlights how language drives further cognitive development in children.

    Language and Thought Chomsky

    Chomsky proposed that language acquisition is an innate ability. Children are already born with the ability to acquire the rules that govern languages. Grammatical rules are common to all languages even though they might differ across them.

    An innate ability to acquire grammatical structures of a language allows children to quickly learn the language, even based on the limited linguistic input they receive in infancy.

    Language and Thought Vygotsky

    According to Vygotsky's sociocultural theory of cognitive development, in early development speech and thought are independent. The two processes merge when speech is internalised. In Vygotsky's theory, language is considered to be a cultural tool that plays a key role in development.

    • Firstly, verbal guidance from adults supports children's learning and development. Language allows adults to share their knowledge and communicate with the child.

    • Secondly, when language becomes internalised and develops into inner speech, it allows children to guide themselves when making decisions, problem-solving or regulating their behaviour.


    Language and Thought - Key Takeaways

    • Piaget's theory proposes that language is preceded by thought during development. Moreover, children's ability to use language is constrained by their stage of cognitive development.
    • The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis proposes that the language we use determines how we think of the world around us, affecting cognitive processes like memory and perception.
      • Whorf used examples from Native American culture to support his claims.
    • The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has received some empirical support. Studies have found that our native language can influence how we remember past events as well as how good we are at recognising differences between colours.
    • Chomsky proposed that the ability to acquire language is innate.
    • According to Vygotsky, language plays a key role in development. Language can be used to provide children with verbal guidance. Later, when children internalise it, language helps them solve problems and regulate their behaviour.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Language and Thought

    How does language affect our thoughts?

    According to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, our native language affects how we think about the world. The words we use to create narratives about the world influence how we represent it internally. According to this view, we can only hold mental representations of the concepts we can name.

    Does language determine thought?

    Different theories propose different relationships between language and thought. Piaget's theory argues that it is the thought that determines language, while the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis proposes that language can determine how we think of the world around us.

    Are language and thought the same?

    Language and thoughts are not the same. Thoughts refer to ideas represented mentally, while language is the system through which to express ourselves and communicate with others.

    What is the relationship between language and thought?

    Different theories in psychology conceptualise the relationship between language and thought differently. The two main and opposing theories are Piaget's theory and the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Piaget argues that language depends on thought and cognitive development, while the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis argues that our thoughts depend on the language we use.

    Does language shape thought or does thought shape language?

    According to Piaget's theory our ability to think shapes and constrains our language. In contrast, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis proposes that the words we use shape how we think about the word. Moreover, our language can affect how we remember events or perceive colours.

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