The Effects of Language on Thought

Claudia Faccone, Robert Kearns, Ashley Kopp, Elizabeth Watson

April 19, 2000

Language, due to its specific properties, is one aspect that makes human beings unique in comparison to other animals and species. The properties include: communication, arbitrary symbolism, regular structure, structure at multiple levels, generation and production, and dynamism (Sternberg, 1999). However, language seems to vary across different cultures and with different people. Different languages use distinctive phonemes, which are the smallest units of sound, as well as describe and name ideas and concepts differently. Consequently, some cognitive psychologists believe that language may influence thought processes. This idea will be discussed through different perspectives on the subject. The paper will cover language acquisition, mainly in infants, linguistic relativity, linguistic universals, and bilingualism and cultural influences on languages and thought.

Language Acquisition

One of the biggest controversies in language acquisition is the application of the nature-nurture debate as applied to language acquisition and development. Through analysis of language acquisition in infants, language acquisition is most likely a natural endowment modified by the environment that the infant is brought up in (Sternberg, 1999). It seems that the series of stages in language acquisition are universal (1999). The first, and probably the most important, stage is the cooing stage, which occurs at about two to four months (Foster-Cohen, 1999). In cooing, infants are able to produce and understand all possible phonemes that humans can produce (Sternberg, 1999). This shows that infants do not need to be raised in a certain linguistic in order to perceive all phonemes and sounds (Foster-Cohen, 1999). One example of this is displayed in Japanese and American babies and how they are able to distinguish between the phonemes /r/ and /l/. The Japanese language cannot distinguish between these two phonemes once their language matures, but infants who are under one year of age can discern between these two phonemes. This ability actually diminishes by the age of one year (Sternberg, 1999). The skills infants have to discriminate between different phonemes of different languages start to disappear at about eight months when the relationship between sound and meaning in their particular language begins to gain in importance for them (Foster-Cohen, 1999). This evidence supports the idea that humans are born with some sort of device that facilitates humans the ability to learn any language as infants. This may also be support for the idea that language does not influence the infants’ thoughts, since all infants can voice and recognize phonemes different then those of the language they are learning.

Babbling is the next important stage in language acquisition. Babbling occurs when the infants begin to string consonants and vowels together. Many of these consonants appear in the language that the child is being exposed to, but early on there are often ones that belong to other languages, or ones made up by the infant (Foster-Cohen, 1999). As the child matures, the mouth cavity changes to be more like that of an adult, therefore giving the child more control over their speech muscles, such as the tongue, lips, and palate (1999). This change greatly affects the speech of children. After the babbling stage, children get into the one-word and two-word utterances, which are defined and distinct for each language. At this point, the universal grammar is no longer apparent in language acquisition.

Linguistic Relativity

Linguistic relativity refers to "the assertion that the speakers of different languages have differing cognitive systems," and that these different systems have an influence on the ways in which the speakers, of the worlds many languages, think about the world (Sternberg, 1999). Most simply, language shapes thought. Often referred to as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic determinism, it states that people’s thoughts are determined by the categories made available by their language. A more moderate idea is that of linguistic relativity (differences among languages cause differences in the thoughts of their speakers—thus, thought is the functional equivalent of language.) According to Steven Pinker (1994), one of the world’s leading experts on language and the mind, the implications of the above hypothesis are dramatic; "the foundational categories of reality are not ‘in’ the world but are imposed by one’s culture (and hence can be challenged…)." Attempts to support the idea of relativity are derived from various studies based on the assumptions that

  1. "Languages carve the spectrum into color words at different places,"
  2. There is a "fundamentally different Hopi concept of time"
  3. There are "dozens of Eskimo words for snow" (1994)

However, Pinker would argue that this is not sufficient evidence. In fact, he thinks it is completely absurd. A more logical explanation for the correlation, if any, between thoughts and language relies on a theory of universality.

In addition, a study conducted by Davies and Snowden (1998) maintains that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is a well-known and "provocative conjecture about the relationship between language and thought…speakers of different languages necessarily construe the world differently, and are locked into the world view given to them by their language." Although academicians largely rejected the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis by about 1970, Davies and Snowden believe that the possibility of language for colors affecting the cognition thereof somewhat remains. It is possible that color cognition is "modulated" by language just as "perception can be modified by experiences, and experiences can be shaped by language" (1998). Their studies were an attempt to test a postulate suggested by the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: does language affect perception? They tested a cross-cultural sample of native English and Setswana speakers who have differing numbers of words for basic colors (eleven in English and five in Setswana). Their pattern of data supports the initial findings (the Universalist position) by showing the similarities between the language groups. However, there appears to be slight linguistic differences between the two samples to which they "conclude that the universal constraints on color perception may be modulated by small cultural influence, including language" (1998).

Associatively, Sternberg (1999) suggests that a milder form of linguistic relativism is that language may not determine thought, but there is certainly an influence. There is a clear interaction between the two. Language "facilitates" thoughts, and in turn, affects perception and memory; it also simulates encoding, storage, and retrieval of information within memory (1999). In summary, the view of linguistic relativity suggests that cognitive differences result from using different languages and thus causes people who speak varying languages to perceive the world differently (1999).

Linguistic Universals

Linguistic universals are characteristic patterns of languages across various cultures. There are hundreds of them that relate to phonology, morphology, semantics, and syntax (Sternberg, 1999). There are a number of ubiquitous features throughout the world’s languages that demonstrate linguistic universals. These features present an excellent opportunity to study and test for the patterns inherent in language.

One of these systematic patterns can be seen in the choice of terms for colors. Brent Berlin and Paul Kay, who identified two linguistic universals contained in color naming across languages, investigated this relationship over several languages (Sternberg, 1999). The first linguistic universal is that each language derives their color terms from only eleven color names. These are black, white, red, yellow, green, blue, brown, purple, pink, orange, and gray. Some languages, such as English, use all eleven names for colors, while others use only two. Secondly, Berlin and Kay discovered that the existence of a color name in a language is arranged according to a hierarchy. This hierarchy contains five levels: (1) black, white; (2) red; (3) yellow, green, blue; (4) brown; and (5) purple, pink, orange, gray. This means that if a language employs only two color terms, then it will only use black and white, and so on down the list until eleven colors have been named (1999).

Personal address terms are also a universal throughout a language (Fitch, 1991). These terms reflect a universal communicative activity, which is speakers addressing and referring to one another. Through this act, people elicit personal identities and define the nature of the relationship existing between themselves and the person to whom they are speaking (1991).

LouAnn Gerken and Thomas Bever (1986) propose three models of how linguistic universals are expressed. The homogenous grammatical model of intuitions is the first of these models. The linguistic universals in this model are grounded within the form of language-specific rules, or the rules that govern a certain language. The second model, the modular grammatical model of intuitions, involves participants in a language assigning each string of words a language-specific structure to which they simultaneously apply linguistic universals. This model assumes that all speakers apply the universal constraints to identical fully formed grammatical structures. The third, and most widely accepted model, is termed the interactionist model. In this theory, listeners apply linguistic universals to their perceived structure rather than to the actual grammatical structure (1986). Through the language and personal address terms examples and the different models of linguistic universals, it is apparent that there is something universal across all languages.


Through the study of bilingualism we may be able to determine whether or not language influences thought. When studying the concept of the language thought connection, two aspects of bilingualism arise. First, the idea that different languages, or multiple languages, occur in separate areas of the brain (Romaine, 1989) gives particular credence to the idea of linguistic relativity. The second idea is that the acquisition of different languages is age specific (DeGroot & Barry, 1992).

Years of research have determined that different languages use different parts of the brain (Romaine, 1989). This occurs because different languages use different tools, and thus they require different mental and physical processes. An example of this is the Spanish language, which uses the temporal cortex for reading and writing abilities. The differentiating factor is that Spanish uses phonetic scripts, unlike many other languages (1989). This does not mean that non-Spanish speakers can not use that part of their brain, just that their language does not facilitate the use of that region.

Another factor that is linked to brain use is the time of language acquisition. Children’s brains are most able to fully acquire a second language before the onset of puberty. This is called the optimal age hypothesis (DeGroot & Berry, 1992). Children from lower socioeconomic status are less likely to be fully fluent in two languages (Sternberg, 1999) which may result from poor nutrition.

Though bilingualism may be a key to understanding the debate between linguistic universalism and linguistic relativity, the issue still raises many questions and requires additional research.

Culture: A key to the puzzle?

The issue of whether or not language influences thought is tricky since more than one factor affects thought patterns. Many researchers have used differing languages to study the relationship between language and thought, and they have come up with many different hypotheses. We propose that although specific languages would affect the part of the brain that one uses, it is not language alone that produces "linguistically" differentiated thought patterns. Rather it is one’s culture.

Though different linguistic cultures have specific language for certain ideas and concepts, the culture they are raised in most likely produce their differentiated ways of thinking. In the United States of America, where English is the predominate language, school systems have a specific method of teaching their curriculum to students. Though not all students are able to grasp this teaching process, most are; this method, taught to them by their teachers, becomes a large part of their thought processes. If one takes into account the idea of society and its impact on thought processes, then both the linguistic universalism and linguistic relativity theories are applicable. Humans are biologically capable of learning any language, but once an individual has passed a certain age, he/she is less likely to develop new language skills. At that point, culture will use the knowledge of words from education to teach a specific way of analyzing the world. It is the culture, not purely language, which facilitates a different way of thinking. Consequently, this is the extra piece of the puzzle that so many scholars have left out in their research endeavors concerning the relationship between thought and language.


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