Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Language Acquisition - Part 6: Linguistic Determinism Hypothesis

At several points so far, I discussed how our environment and physiology influences our language. I also supported this view by three hypotheses, the first one is the deep structure hypothesis, the second is the critical period hypothesis, and the third is Wittgenstein's view that humans cannot understand animals because they live in different environments and have different needs.

But the interaction between us as humans and language is a two way lane. Thats to say, the human nature affects language (as explained previously). Not only that, language affects our abilities and understanding of our surrounding, it might even cripple the human understanding.

This view is usually called "Linguistic Determinism", which simply means that human thoughts is determined by (or limited by) their language.

In a study of a Brazilian tribe whose language only defines the numbers one and two, it has been shown that those people had difficulties recognizing groups of four items or more. For that tribe, numbers are one, two, and "many"!! In an experiment, the members of that tribe were shown a random number of items (with a maximum of ten items), and were asked to make another pile that contains the same number of items. For piles made up of one, two, or three items, the members were able to make such a pile. Most of them failed to create piles of four or more items!!

The above study shows that because the tribe members couldn't verbally specify the number of items in each pile, they consequently failed to represent that number in piles.

Also, think about why certain linguistics professionals insist that in order to eliminate sexism in our communities, we should use non-sexist language. For example, "chairperson" replaces "chairman", "mailperson" replaces "mailman", and say "businessperson" replaces "businessman". This replacement might seem useless "political correctness", but experts believe that changing the use of such words can dramatically catalyze fighting sexism.

Humans since the beginning were aware of the differences between males and females, and they consequently reflected that in their language. Humans ever since starting of thinking of everything as male or female, black or white, ...etc. Thats an example of how our world affected our language, and consequently our language affected our thoughts. It is hypothesized that changing language can act in the reverse manner of reshaping our thoughts.

In extreme cases, some believe that what we define as "logic" is merely a consequence of the grammar we use in languages, and that language eliminates all forms of objectivity. If Linguistic Determinism was true, one has to think of how our personality, perceptions, and views are limited by the language we acquired as infants. Wittgenstein recognizes this limitation when he says:
"The limits of my language are the limits of my world. All I know is what I have words for." (source)

In this series:
Language Acquisition - Part 1: General Discussion
Language Acquisition - Part 2: The Influence Of Physiological Formation
Language Acquisition - Part 3: Deep Structure Hypothesis
Language Acquisition - Part 4: Ambiguities
Language Acquisition - Part 5: The Problem Of Representation
Language Acquisition - Part 6: Linguistic Determinism Hypothesis
Language Acquisition - Part 7: Possible Applications For The Investigation


kinzi said...

Hi DM! I've been meaning to stop by and comment forever...this study of linguistics is very interesting and I have a mental note to check as I have time.

Take it as a compliment that when I read your blog, I need to pay complete attention.

As an intuitive/feeler, I must take issue with the last quote, as I can experience my world through impressions and emotions that aren't verbal. :)

I was wondering what your MBTI is...what a thinker you are!

No_Angel said...

this one is interesting :D
though wittgenstein seems to be specifically talking about unilingual people.
when you expand beyond a single language, were your capabalities in them is of comparable proficiency you develop the habit of using the word that fits the thought specifically regardless of the language spoken.

for example if you see 3 books, and ask a person how many books are there, the answer in english would be "three"
in japanese it would be "sanbon"
so while the answer translates the same when put in context if you take out out of context japanese would have a second layer of information in it, since counting in that language adds a prefix to describe the object. in this case a square(rectangular) light weight object.
For the case of the tribe its interesting since they didn't need to verbalize it, one test was to match the taps. what's interesting about this is that in that case you do not count, its all a matter of memorization and pattern recognition which is a totally different cognotive process(if i recall correctly).
So that part enforces the thought that what you are not used to thinking about will seem foreign, and you will have difficulty comprehending it. I attribute you to thought patterns, and neurology rather than language in this case.
It is true that a language gives life to our thoughts, but our thought can be undefined. the only effect to having undefined thoughts is that you will have difficulty communicating them, but you will be capable of understanding them yourself.
e.g. experiences on a biolgical level (tasting, pain), spiritual experience

Natasha said...

This post made me a little sad … the idea that there are things that limit our powerful thoughts is a little depressing... But there are language helpers, like facial expressions, body language and the voice tone, and there are ways for expressing thoughts that are less limited like painting, dancing and music. I guess that is why I always hated when they try to give a painting or a dance a lingual description, for me it is not a subject for translation it simply cannot be limited with any spoken language :)

I when too far with this philosophy, Mashuuha ;)

Devil's Mind said...

I agree that Wittgenstein's view of the role of language might be a little but too extreme and unjustified. As much as I know, Wittgenstein not only defines "spoken" language, but also defines what he calls "private language", which is the language that a person speaks to himself while thinking. So, although you might not be able to describe your feelings to other people, you probably can describe feeling to yourself in your own mind.

Personally, I wouldn't hold the strong position that knowledge is limited to language, and I think that: "All I know is what I have words for." isn't entirely true. Nonetheless, I think that we are largely limited by our lingual structures, and that language takes an important role in formulating our ideas.

Finally, and to answer Natasha's concerns, I want to tell you that music IS a language. Thats painting IS a language. Language isn't limited to vocals or verbals. Language includes all forms of expressing ideas. After all, the deaf have a language, its called "sign language".

Now, knowing our limitations should NOT be a reason to sit-back and grief. When we find limitations we better do some science and break those limitations. People looked at the moon and believed they couldn't reach it... But through science we did reach the moon, and unlocked the secrets of not only atoms, but the inside of a proton.

The Observer said...

Devil's mind, this may explains the impression of why people who are bi-lingual or talk more languages seem to be smarter. Maybe they do have more vocabulary to think with. This makes sense. I like this series.

Devil's Mind said...

Good point, Observer. I think your hypothesis stands true when we consider Wittgenstein's view about language. I guess if one language has a certain limitation, we would benefit from learning another language that doesn't have that limitation. "Maybe they do have more vocabulary to think with." - Yeah, that does help!

I am glad that this series turned out fine. Its the longest series I have made. A seven parts series... Thats pretty much, guess I had a lot to say about this topic!

The Observer said...

In fact it is very interesting reading this. I have always wondered while seeing lebanese people talk how they find it easier picking up words from their pool of vocab rather than Jordanians or even any other Arab country. Maybe it has to do with their exposure to the world. I think it explains why they are leading in terms of creativity.