Language and Cognition

According to Whorf’s linguistic determinism hypothesis, the language that we learn determines our perception of the world (Gentner, 2016). This theory has stimulated discussion about the role of language in cognition. Although researchers have found little evidence to support linguistic determinism, studies have indicated that while the language we use may not determine the way we think, it can influence our cognition.

In Dedre Gentner’s literature review, “Language as Cognitive Tool Kit: How Language Supports Relational Thought,” she considers some studies that suggest that the spatial vocabulary of different languages can prompt people to think about space differently. For example, English speakers think of space relatively because English uses an egocentric frame. That is to say, English speakers tend to think of things as “left,” “right,” “in front,” or “behind” them. On the other hand, Tzeltal speakers think of their surroundings from an absolute point of view because Tzeltal uses a geocentric frame. Tzeltal speakers describe the location of objects as “north,” “south,” “east,” and “west.” While an object that is considered “left” to a person may vary depending on where the individual is standing, an object that is considered “north” will be considered “north” regardless of the individual’s location.

In addition, Haun and Rapold’s study about the “Variation in memory for body movements across Cultures” illustrates the effect of the different spatial frames of a language. In this experiment, children whose native language, Haillom, a geocentric language, and children whose native language, German, an egocentric language, were asked to learn a “right-left-right-right… sequence of hand motions” (Gentner, 2016, p. 652) in a dance. Then, the children were told to turn around 180 degrees and perform the dance again. The children who spoke Haillom now danced with a left-right-left-left sequence, while the children who spoke German continued to dance with a right-left-right-right sequence. What appears to have happened is the native-speaking Haillom children interpreted the dance instructor’s instructions in terms of cardinal directions, while the German children interpreted the instructions in terms of relative directions.   

These differences in interpreting our world due to language may be subtle, but nonetheless existent. Thus, it would be beneficial to be more conscientious of how the language we use provides a certain framework for the way we think about things. In addition, it would be useful to reflect on how our description of an idea or object can be a representation of what we think about it.

Works Cited

Gentner, Dedre. “Language as Cognitive Tool Kit: How Language Supports Relational Thought.” American Psychologist, vol. 71, no. 8, Nov. 2016, pp. 650–657., doi:10.1037/amp0000082.

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