Theories of language and cognition | Processing the Environment | MCAT | Khan Academy


If you’ve ever learned
another language, then you know that some words
don’t translate exactly. For example, there’s a
language in New Guinea that only has two words
for color– mola, meaning “bright,” and
mili, meaning “dark.” Now compare that to English. We have lots of
words for color– blue, green, teal,
mauve, all that stuff. But does the fact that we
have different words for color mean that we actually think
about color differently? And your answer to that
question places you on one position of the great
language-thought debate. Which comes first? And we have different
theories that we can place sort of on a spectrum. And on one end, we have
something called universalism. This theory says that thought
comes before language. So your thoughts dictate
the language that develops. So going back to our
New Guinean example, a universalist would say
that that group of people only thinks in terms
of bright and dark, and if they had concepts or
ideas about other colors, then they would
develop words for them in order to express
those thoughts. So with universalism,
we have the idea that thought determines
language completely. And now here, at this
point, we have the idea that thought
influences language. Just a little bit
gentler of a statement. And this is the idea
that Piaget ascribed to. Piaget came up with a theory
of cognitive development in children, and it was because
of this and his observations of children that he
believed that once children were able to think
in a certain way, then they developed the language
to describe those thoughts. So, for example, when children
learn that objects continue to exist even though
they can’t see them, that’s when they
start to develop words like “gone” and
“missing,” “find.” So their language
development is influenced by their cognitive development
and their newly-discovered ability to understand
that objects exist, even when they can’t
see them anymore. So that’s what Piaget thought. And now, a little further down,
towards the more middle ground, we have Vygotsky. And Vygotsky thought that
language and thought are independent, but they
converge through development. So he didn’t really say if
language influenced thought or if thought
influenced language. He just said they’re both
there, they’re both independent, but eventually, you learn to
use them at the same time. Because Vygotsky
believed that children develop language through
social interaction with adults who already
know the language. And through that
interaction, then they learn to connect their
thoughts and the language that they eventually learn. OK, so now we’re crossing
over the middle ground into the world that
believes language has an influence on thought. And we have a couple
of positions here, and they both fall
under the category of linguistic determinism. So these are called the weak
and the strong hypotheses. And this isn’t a value
judgment on how good they are or how well-established
they are. It just refers to
how much influence they think language
has on thought. So weak linguistic
determinism says that language
influences thought. It makes it easier
or more common for us to think in
certain ways depending on how our language
is structured. So, for example, I’m going
to read you a sentence, and I want you to draw it out
or at least vividly imagine it. “The girl pushes the boy.” OK, so however you drew
that out or imagined it, if you drew it this way, with
the girl on the left pushing the boy toward the right, than
your native language probably reads from left to
right, like English. If you drew the girl
pushing the boy this way, with the girl on the right
pushing toward the left, then your native
language might be one that reads from right
to left, like Hebrew. Now, it’s not that you
can’t or didn’t even draw it the other way. It’s just that, depending on
how your language is structured, it makes it more
likely or easier for you to think about that
action in a certain direction. Now, strong
linguistic determinism takes a more extreme
view and says that language determines
thought completely. This is also called the
Whorfian hypothesis, because the guy that came up
with it, his name was Whorf. And he observed that there is
a Native American tribe called the Hopi that don’t have
any grammatical tense in their language,
and he thought that meant that
they couldn’t think about time in the same way. Later, people
studying the language found that the Hopi
have a different way of expressing past,
present, and future. So we don’t have an answer yet
for which of these perspectives is the correct one, and people
are still doing research to try to discover which
one is the most accurate. But now you’re aware of
the main perspectives on the relationship between
thought and language. And now, when you’re
learning a foreign language, you can think about how the
language you’re learning is influencing your
thoughts, or vice-versa, how your thoughts are affecting your
interpretation of the language.

11 Replies to “Theories of language and cognition | Processing the Environment | MCAT | Khan Academy

  1. How do we understand errant/anomalous/atypical/error ridden sentences? And how is we can usually create standard 'acceptable' sentences out of them?
    How about this sentence, " I don't like rainy but I little like"? What do you make of it? Can you understand it? Is it because you formed a 'correct' sentence in your mind first? Now try to reform the sentence. What do you come up with?

  2. This is an interesting topic. I must say, the idea that language determines thought seems erroneous, to me. We're sentient beings planted in a physical reality, one which contains objects and stimuli. We're equipped with our five senses so that we can take in all the information needed to help us survive and navigate our surroundings. Along the way, we as human beings with our higher functioning brains can derive concepts and have the ability to exercise abstract thought. The degree to which that is possible is the degree to which we develop language, a symbolic oral or written system that helps us communicate concepts and ideas for a whole range of purposes. So language is a tool of thought, used to express all of that.

  3. i am a TBİ survivor i understand the semantics of language but my reasoning and perception is off i dont understand or see the intent or the hidden meaning of words i feel soooooooooooooooooooooo mind blind all the time what is the theory on people like me ??

  4. wow, Professor Yue thank you. You really do enjoy the fields of information you discussed in these videos, you're excitement and fundamental, and intuitive understandings of the content were clear in every sentence you spoke.

    I had a question about the continuum between "thought and langauge" . For the thought side, should there be a separation for "liguistic" and "imagistic" thought? You can activate your language production centers by thinking the words you want to say, which kind of makes this "thought" really similar to "spoken language". While an image called to mind would be more in line with "thought" devoid of language.

  5. If we think our brain works as an "Associative Machine", than it comes to a sense that language and thoughts are associating themselves. So both are interdependent, growing together to perceive the world around us.

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