Does language shape how we think?

Does it ever seem to you that no matter how much homework a student does, how much vocabulary they study, and no matter how good their attendance is, they still don’t make notable progress?

Could it be because they don’t have the competence required to understand linguistic relativity? Do you think some words or concepts are simply un-translate-able?

Culture, language, and cognition seem to be closely intertwined. Here’s a quick intro:

Does language shape how we think? – Linguistics 101


4 thoughts on “Does language shape how we think?

  1. “No notable progress”? The simplest explanation is often the best – they are not linguistically / verbally gifted. Perhaps they are more intelligent in other ways. Check their progress in L1 and in other subject areas. Check for dyslexia and ADHS and deafness. And after that, look at their home culture, like how long do parents talk to them, do they have books in the house. The linguistic and cultural connection is way down the list of likely causes, in the modern world.


  2. “linguistic relativity?” I don’t understand that myself. Good that it is explained at 1.26 in the video: “different languages represent different ways of thinking about the world around us” .
    So maybe I can’t translate my ideas of time into the Hopi language. When I was at Uni in Christchurch, I ran a volleyball league, and it was a tough job to get the Samoan team to turn up on time. I found out that they only have present tenses. To get them to appear for a match, I had to go and round them up, and they were quite happy to come.
    But it is more likely that the slow learner has a “TV mentality” from being fed entertainment for years, throws tantrums because this is a success pattern for persuading parents to buy toys, cannot defer pleasure for a later reward, and has an attention span measured in seconds or minutes. I guess this is a cultural difference, as great a difference from the teacher as Hopi or Chinese.

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  3. There are differences in how speakers of different languages perceive things and notice details. Here’s one example from Chapter 2 of “Applying Cognitive Linguistics” by Jeanette Littlemore:

    She describes a study by Slobin (2000). To paraphrase, English uses a great deal of variation in the verbs to express the manner of movement: to dash in, to slip out, to creep up, etc. In this experiment, English was contrasted with Spanish, which uses modifiers to add information to the basic verb: for example, “he entered the house running”.

    After reading a Spanish text, either in the original Spanish or a literal translation (ie, with few descriptive verbs), Spanish and English speakers were interviewed about what they remembered from the text and how they visualised it.

    95% of English speakers claimed to have mental images of various types of movement and they used a variety of manner of movement verbs in their descriptions: “dodge occasional hazards in the trail; move clumsily; rock from side to side; slosh through; stagger; struggle; stumble, sluggish movement, stumbling over the rocks on the path; slowly edge his way down the trail; slow his pace; take each step slow and difficult, tiring and never ending; trek; trench [sic] through a muddy path; trudge; slowly hobbling”.

    In contrast, only 14% of Spanish speakers reported having images of movement and their responses to the prompts are rather interesting:

    “I see him walking with difficulty, with care not to slip, making especially slow movements, as if it cost him special effort to move his legs or was carrying a weight in them. It was hard for him to walk through the mud hole. I don’t picture him getting down from the train but rather standing still on the platform and I don’t see him going along a very long trajectory in order to arrive at the village; rather I see him at a distance from it, looking at it. I repeat that I don’t observe him moving in the direction of the village but rather as static images, more like photographs.”

    “It would seem that he moves, walks, but I don’t see any sort of detailed action on his part. I know that he walks and must have his feet burdened with the stony ground but I see the stones and the
    path more than the manner in which he walks….It would seem that he were floating at times as if he were seated in a cart.”

    And here’s a response from a bilingual participant after reading the same text in the English translation:

    ‘I’m still seeing very little manner of movement but I see more concrete walking and I can sort of make out a pace. I see less of the surroundings. The story feels different. There is less detail in regards to the scenery.’

    Slobin, D. I. (2000). ‘Verbalized events. A dynamic approach to linguistic relativity and determinism’. In S. Niemeier and R. Dirven (eds.)Evidence for Linguistic Relativity(Amsterdam: John Benjamins), pp. 108–38.


  4. Aha, now I see what linguistic relativism may mean. It’s said that French is a more exact language than English, so better suited to logical expression, And to diplomacy, but I think here it would rather be a liability. And German may be better suited to philosophy, or psychiatry, but this is probably because of predominance in these fields during some period of history. The size of the vocabulary (and context area of the speakers, for instance desert dwellers or seafarers) is one measure of usefulness, and the complexity of the grammar too, for instance how many tenses or conditional forms exist, and if alternative methods serve the same function.

    I found this statement: “The maximum number of tenses (combining both past and future) in Bernard Comrie’s Tense is from Bamileke-Ngyemboon, a Bantu language spoken in Cameroon, which has four past tenses, a present tense, and four future tenses, for a total of nine tenses each indicating different points in time relative to the present. ” From

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