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Thinking and Language

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Thinking and Language

Does language determine how we think? Or does thinking determine our language? Do our ideas originate first and then we think of what to call them? Do we have thoughts because of the words we know? Without language, would we be able to think?

  • What are thinking and language in psychology?
  • What is the relationship between thinking and language?
  • How important are thinking and language?
  • What are some examples of how language impacts thinking?

Thinking and Language in Psychology

Linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf asked questions like the ones above and developed a hypothesis about them. Whorf believed that language influences the way that we think. He said that without verbs we wouldn't be able to think about things in the past. Whorf called this concept linguistic determinism.

Linguistic determinism means that language or words (linguistics) determine the way that we think.

Language is the tool that we use to convert thoughts, ideas, and cognitive processes into words and communicate them to others. Whorf indicated in his theory that there is a natural logic to thinking and language. He said that talking is a consequence of wanting to communicate, but talking is not a natural consequence of thinking. Is this correct? Is thinking possible without language, or can we think even if we can't communicate our thoughts? Let's dive deeper into the relationship between thinking and language.

The Relationship Between Language and Thinking

According to today's psychological understanding, Whorf's hypothesis is considered extreme and somewhat incorrect. It is very possible to think of something without knowing what to call it (language). Think about colors. You can think about them without words for specific colors.

The question of the relationship between thinking and language becomes a bit more complicated when you consider those who are bilingual. What if you know more than one word for the color red? Which one do you choose? Different languages embody different ways of thinking.

Bilingual refers to someone who is fluent in two languages. "Bi" means two, and "lingual" refers to words or language.

In one study, participants who were Chinese bilingual students at the University at Waterloo in Ontario were asked to describe themselves in both English and Chinese. The results showed that the descriptions in English were positive depictions while the Chinese descriptions contained both positive and negative depictions. The way we describe ourselves and the world changes depending on the language we use!

The English language and the Japanese language reflect inherently different ways of thinking. English vocabulary is heavily focused on personal emotions. Japanese vocabulary is heavily focused on relational emotions.

“Learn a new language and get a new soul.” -Czech proverb

The Importance of Language and Thinking

Language is not the sole determining factor in the way that we think, but it is certainly an influence on our thoughts. Language is great for creating categories to help us better understand things like numbers and colors. Looking at other cultures and their languages can help you better understand the influence of language on our thoughts.

In the Japanese language, there is a shared word for both blue and green. Of course, Japanese speakers can discern which color is being mentioned based on contextual factors, but the word to describe both colors is the same. A contrasting example is the Russian language, where there is one word for several different shades of blue. The way a language conveys colors influences the way that we think about colors!

Language and thinking are like a two-way highway of information. The more we develop and expand our language abilities, the more we also expand our cognitive abilities. This is one reason that reading widely is highly encouraged! Smart people are often well-read people. Language helps us communicate, conceptualize, and understand abstract ideas like happiness, truth, independence, and honor.

Those who are bilingual have the advantage of a wider vocabulary, which translates into more knowledge. Those who know more than one language can inhibit one language while they are using a different one. This demonstrates executive control over language and also demonstrates the abilities of cognitive attention and focus.

Examples of the Effects of Language on Thinking

While colors and descriptive vocabulary are certainly great examples of the impact of language on thinking, there is another interesting example to consider. Would you believe that describing time can also be different based on the language you use? English speakers typically refer to events in duration or length of time ("That was a long movie"). Spanish speakers typically refer to amounts of time using words such as "little" or "big" in the description ("That was a big movie"). The way a language describes time reflects how individuals in that culture tend to think about time.

As an English speaker, this can be confusing. A concept referred to as grammatical gender is another amazing example of how language impacts thinking. In Spanish, the word for table includes an indication of gender (la mesa is feminine). Japanese uses a different grammatical structure because there is no gender associated with objects in that language.

In another research study, the researchers asked Spanish and German speakers to describe a specific object. The researchers wanted to see if the way the speakers described the object would differ significantly based on gendered aspects of language. The object was a key, which is considered masculine in German and feminine in Spanish.

When asked to describe the object in German, the words used were considered masculine descriptors ("heavy", "hard", and "jagged"). The opposite was true in Spanish, where words such as "intricate" and "little" were used to describe the very same object. This is an example of how language changes and influences how we think about and describe objects!

Thinking and Language - Key takeaways

  • Linguistic determinism means that language determines the way that we think.
  • Language is the tool that we use to convert thoughts, ideas, and cognitive processes into words and communicate them to others.
    • Different languages embody different ways of thinking.
    • Language is not the sole determining factor in the way that we think, but it is certainly an influence on our thoughts.
  • Language and thinking are like a two-way highway of information. The more we develop and expand our language abilities, the more we also expand our cognitive abilities.
  • Those who are bilingual have the advantage of a wider vocabulary, which translates into more knowledge.
  • The grammatical gender of a word changes how a speaker thinks about and describes an object.

Frequently Asked Questions about Thinking and Language

The relationship between language and thinking is that language influences our thoughts.

Language affects thinking through expanding our cognitive abilities, our vocabulary, and our knowledge.

Thinking is influenced by language, but neither determines the other.

Thinking, learning, and language are interrelated because they all deal with cognition.

Thinking is possible without language, but language provides a way of communicating our thoughts.

Final Thinking and Language Quiz

Question

What is the meaning of language and what is the definition in

psychology?

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Answer

Language is our spoken and written language and the ways that we combine them to communicate with one another.

Show question

Question

There are three key structures to language learning. What are they?

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Answer

phonemes, morphemes, grammar

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Question

_____ are the smallest units of a word that carries meaning with them.


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Answer

Morphemes

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Question

Each language has its own set of rules or guides so that our words have a specific order is known as ____.

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Answer

 grammar.

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Question

The ____ stage begins as early as 4 months old and is a baby's way of making sound variations to mimic and (hopefully) produce their sounds.

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Answer

babbling

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Question

____ stage - The child has understood that sounds carry importance and now they are adding their singular words understandings to the mix.

Show answer

Answer

One-word

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Question

Once the one-word stage is familiar and becomes easier, (around the age of 2 years) there is the beginning of the ____ stage.

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Answer

 two-word

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Question

______ aspects of language - At earlier ages, we can know and understand when there are word breaks as well as understand syllables.

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Answer

Statistical

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Question

There are ___ periods in our early childhood years that allow for our language acquisition to happen as smoothly as it does.

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Answer

 critical

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Question

_____ language -As early as four months old we begin learning and understanding speech sounds.

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Answer

Receptive

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Question

What are three language acquisition theories?


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Answer

Innateness, cognitive theory, and language acquisition support system (LASS). 

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Question

Who proposed linguistic determinism?

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Answer

Linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf

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Question

______ - language determines the way that we think.

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Answer

linguistic determinism

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Question

Yes or No? Can we think of things like a color without being told the word of that color?

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Answer

Yes

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Question

True or False:  Bilingual education can enhance thinking.


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Answer

True

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Question

True or False: Language is not a determining factor in the way that we think but it is certainly an influencer.

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Answer

True

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Question

Those who are ____ are creating a positive advantage for themselves by creating more word and vocabulary knowledge.

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Answer

bilingual

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Question

Which is an example of language's effect on thinking?


A. Grammatical gender

B. Source amnesia

C. Language has no effect

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Answer

A. Grammatical gender

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Question

True or False: Language can determine how we describe time.


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Answer

True

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Question

Piaget suggested that there was, at ____ months, children typically have a larger vocabulary due to object permanence and labels for objects (big ball, for example.).

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Answer

18

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Question

The sentences that are being developed by the child are at most two words that are contrived of ___ and ___(dog go!).

Show answer

Answer

nouns and verbs

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Question

True or False: A baby who is born deaf learns to babble with their hands.


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Answer

True!

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Question

True or False: Chomsky believed that we are  preprogrammed with a language

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Answer

False. Who understood that we are not born already knowing which language we will speak but it was a learned event. 

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Question

True or False: Whorf's theories of language and thinking are still widely used in psychology today.

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Answer

False. While Whorf's theories were the foundational source of the theories of thinking and language, they are not generally used. 

Show question

Question

True or False: Language is great for creating categorical factors to help us better understand such as numbers and color categories.


Show answer

Answer

True! It is part of the framework in our natural language.

Show question

Question

What is the bilingual advantage?

Show answer

Answer

Those who know more than one language can inhibit one language while it is not in

use.

Show question

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