Language And Thinking-For-Speaking

Yesterday I reviewed how certain aspects of language may influence thought by transiently accelerating ontological development. But language can also skew perception in a more lasting way, as reviewed by Boroditsky, Schmidt and Phillips in their chapter in Language in Mind: Advances in the study of Language and Thought (perhaps based in part on this paper by the same name).

Boroditsky et al. describe several experiments that demonstrate linguistic influences on learning. In one such experiment, German and Spanish speakers were taught male or female proper names for objects that have a grammatical gender in those languages. Speakers of both languages show interference when learning these names if the gender of the new object name (e.g., "Patrick") is inconsistent with the grammatical gender of that object in the speaker's language.

In another experiment, the authors gave German and Spanish speakers each a list of 24 words which differed in grammatical gender. Each subject was then asked to write down three adjuectives describing each word. The entire experiment was conducted in English. Coders blind to the purpose of the study rated these adjectives as distinctly "more female" for words that had feminine gender in German or Spanish, and as distinctly "more male" for words with masculaine gender. Here is a particularly amusing paragraph from the chapter, regarding this study:
"There were also observable qualitative differences between the kinds of adjectives Spanish and German speakers produced. For example, the word for "key" is masculine in German and feminine in Spanish. German speakers described keys as hard, heavy, jagged, metal, serrated, and useful, while Spanish speakers said they were golden, intricate, little, lovely, shiny and tiny. The word for "bridge," on the other hand, is feminine in German and masculine in Spanish. German speakers described bridges as beautiful, elegant, fragile, peaceful, pretty and slender, while Spanish speakers said they were big, dangerous, long, strong, sturdy and towering."
Boroditsky point out that the grammatical differences in these words might actually reflect cultural differences in bridge architecture, thus making it difficult to ascribe these effects specifically to language rather than general cultural effects. To address this problem, Boroditsky et al taught English speakers the "soupative/oosative" distinction in the fictitious Gumbuzi language, in which, for example, girls as well as pens, pans and forks might be "soupative," while boys as well as giants, spoons and penciles might be "oosative." After learning this distinction, the English speakers were simply shown the objects and asked to provide adjectives describing each one. Independent and blind coding again showed that those who had learned to associate a given object with males tended to provide more "male-like" adjectives, and vice versa for "female-like" adjectives.

All in all it is not terribly surprising that some aspects of language can affect other aspects, such as adjective generation. However, Boroditsky et al. also review evidence where language affects superficially non-linguistic behaviors; for example, German and Spanish speakers are more likely to rate certain objects as more similar to males if that is consistent with grammatical gender in their native tongue, and vice versa for females, even if the task is conducted in English.

One might still complain that a task like similarity rating is still linguistic, and expect that if linguistic resources were somehow occupied this effect would disappear. However, Boroditsky et al. report that the effect remained even when subjects were engaged in a secondary but concurrent speech-shadowing task (where subjects must repeat aloud the words said to them in an unrelated stream of speech). The authors conclude that language clearly does influence non-linguistic thought in a profound way, and that the kinds of mental experiences we have may differ significantly depending on what language we speak.

Of course, there are reasons to think this may not be completely right. For example, the speech-shadowing task may have its effects simply by acting on attention or memory - and so adult subjects essentially become "handicapped" into looking like children. All of the other tasks seem linguistic in nature; in other words, subjects might have been using verbal encoding strategies. In this case, language-specific effects are unsurprising, since they could result from mere priming of "thinking-for-speaking" rather than affecting "thinking-in-general."

In conclusion, much stronger evidence for a deep influence of language on "thinking-in-general" comes from evidence reviewed on Monday about space metaphors of time and linguistic determinism. (The authors found that the kinds of metaphors used in your mother language will skew nonverbal time-reproduction judgments by stimuli that relate to those metaphors).


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great job in parsing through this important topic. I'm still reading back posts. And you're logically getting closer and closer to another interesting one: the gender differences in oral language expression. Hm .m.m. and thinking?

10/11/2006 11:09:00 AM  
Blogger Tad said...

You seem to suggest that if language affects only thinking for speaking, and not thinking in general, the thesis is somehow less interesting. But thinking for speaking occupies a lot if not most of an adult human's time (especially if there is a lot of self-directed speech). If we're almost constantly thinking for speaking, then, in practice, language has a huge influence on behavior-relevant thought. You don't need to buy Whorf to see a strong role for language in human cognition.

10/12/2006 05:34:00 AM  

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