First Language (L1) intro to Cook & Bassetti (2011) Language and Bilingual Cognition

A central question for philosophers, psychologists and linguists for many years has been how what we think relates to what we say. This introduction sketches some possible relationships between cognition and language as a prologue to the rest of the book. It is intended as an impressionistic snapshot from an applied linguist to involve readers with some of the issues and potentialities of this exciting area of research. Bilingualism is the subject of a separate background in Chapter 7. One logical possibility is that the way people think influences the language they use. Another that language influences how people think. Or it may be impossible to separate the two: Thinking and language are essentially the same thing. Or indeed language and thinking may be linked simply through convenience; neither language nor thinking crucially affects the other.

Alongside these synchronic relationships between cognition and language at a particular moment of time go diachronic and developmental issues about how the relationship works over longer periods of time: How did these connections come into being in societies and how do they emerge in the minds of individual children? Issues also arise concerning people who know two systems: Does an English second language (L2) user of Japanese in Tokyo think in a Japanese way, maintain their English way of thinking, or think in a new way born out of the two?


The possible relationships between cognition and language can be expressed in many ways. Gumperz & Levinson (1996, p. 25) spell out one approach as:

Given that

(1) differences occur in linguistic categories across languages

(2) linguistic categories determine aspects of individuals’ cognition


(3) aspects of individuals’ cognition differ across linguistic communities according to the language they speak.

Lucy (1997) puts it as a logical choice between:

- structure-centered approaches that see what linguistic differences imply for cognition

- domain-centered approaches that see how ‘experienced reality’ may be represented differently across languages

- behaviour-centered approaches that see how different behaviours are linked to language differences.

We will discuss the relationship as a set of four inter-related questions; the extension to people who know more than one language is made in Chapter 7.

Question 1. Do People Think Differently?

One question is whether there are differences between the cognition of groups or individuals ‑- do English people think differently from Japanese people in general? Does a particular English person think differently from a particular Japanese person? The question is deliberately couched in general terms that could apply to any group of people. Research into the relationship between language and cognition has usually restricted itself to groups that differ in culture, nationality or age rather than gender, disability, handedness, literacy or other areas where differences might also occur.

Let us take five disparate examples of apparent differences in cognition between groups out of the many that could be used:

- visual perception. The Müller-Lyer illusion, familiar from introductions to psychology, asks which of two lines seems longer. ‘Westerners’ see:


            as longer than:


though they are actually the same length; people from ‘non-Western’ cultures, such as Zulus and Bushmen in Southern Africa and Hanunóo in the Philippines, see them as the same length (Segall, Campbell, & Herskovitz, 1966). Even an apparently straightforward matter of optical illusion varies between groups of people.

- taste and smell. Malaysians are able to make finer distinctions than English speakers between solutions differing in saltiness (O’Mahoney & Muhiudeen, 1977); Germans and Japanese differ over perceived pleasantness and intensity of odours (Ayabe-Kanamura et al., 1998). People’s perception of taste and smell differs across groups, even if such sensations are hard to verbalize in any language.

- spatial orientation. Guugu-Yimidhirr people in north-east Australia do not orient themselves by their own bodies (front/back, left/right) but by points of the compass (north/south, east/west) (Levinson, 1996). Spatial reference is relative to the body of the speaker for some groups, absolute for others. Or indeed based on other types of reference, for speakers of Pirahã by orientation to the nearest river (Everett, 2008) and for the inhabitants of Santiago de Chile by closeness to the Andes -- ‘up town’ is towards the Andes, ‘down town’ is away.

- objects and substances. When classifying simple objects, Japanese are influenced by the idea of their material rather than their shape; Americans are the reverse (Imai & Gentner, 1997). Asked to choose whether a plastic pyramid or a piece of cork is most like a cork pyramid, Japanese prefer the piece of cork, English speakers the plastic pyramid. Similar preferences for material versus shape have been found in Yucatec versus English (Lucy, 1992) and for shape and colour in Navaho versus English (Carroll & Casagrande, 1958).

-colour. Speakers of Berinmo in Papua New Guinea and speakers of English perceive different boundaries between the two pairs of colours nol/wor and blue/green respectively (Davidoff, Davies, & Roberson, 1999); Davies (1998) found that speakers of Setswana were more likely to group ‘green’ and ‘blue’ together than speakers of English and Russian.

The examples here so far have followed the logic expressed by Lucy (1997, p. 295): “Without the relation to thought more generally (i.e. beyond that necessary for the act of speaking itself), it [linguistic relativity] is merely linguistic diversity”. The goal is, then, to see how language impinges on non-language areas of cognition: “Does thinking for speaking a particular language have an effect on how people think when not thinking for speaking that language? ” (Boroditsky, Schmidt, & Phillips, 2003, p. 62). As Cardini (2009) points out, this requires research techniques which involve language as little as possible; it also has the problem of trying to establish language-neutral aspects of cognition unaffected by the language and culture of the researcher (Lucy, this volume; Wierzbicka, this volume).

Some language and cognition researchers, however, now work with Slobin’s (1996) concept of ‘language for thinking’ -- “a special form of thought that is mobilized for communication” (p. 76); they concentrate on whether people differ when they communicate ideas rather than in the ideas themselves. The question is whether people differ when they turn particular concepts they want to say into words rather than whether they think differently when actual communication is not involved. This may be compatible with a view in which human thinking is universal; particular languages draw out or enable particular ways of expressing our common mental concepts. Of course, like observations of electrons, the difference between language for thinking and non-language cognition is filtered through the mind of the observer, which inevitably relies on the medium of language to function.

While it is always possible to attack the design and methodology of individual research paradigms, for example Li and Gleitman (2002)’s criticism of Levinson’s approach, nevertheless the sheer bulk and range of the studies constitute a body of evidence that some aspects of cognition do vary between groups of human beings, unavailable at the time when the relationship between language and cognition became a focus of discussion in the early twentieth century: At least some aspects of human cognition are not universal.

Question 2. Do Differences in Cognition Go with Different Features of Language?

A preliminary issue is whether language and cognition are indeed distinct at some level. Writers like Jackendoff (1992) would claim they were one and the same and deny that they can be meaningfully separated. To those who deny any difference, this question is pointless: If people indeed think differently, this is necessarily reflected in their language; “language does not affect cognition; it is one form that cognition can take” (Tomasello, 2003, p. 56). At the opposite extreme, Chomskyan theory has always maintained the modularity of language  as a distinct faculty of the mind. In the current Minimalist Program (e.g. Chomsky, 1995), an interface keeps the computational system of language distinct from the conceptual-intentional system (Chomsky, 1995).

Question 2 correlates differences in cognition with differences in language. Language is, however, not the only factor that could be correlated with cognition. The differences in susceptibility to the Müller-Lyer illusion were ascribed by Segall et al.(1966) to the square lines of ‘carpentered’ buildings versus the flowing contours of ‘uncarpentered’ ones, that is to say, features of the environment; however, recent work in shape representation finds common perception of shapes among US students and members of an isolated tribe, the Hima (Biederman, Yue, & Davidoff, 2009). The taste and smell differences of O’Mahoney and Muhiud­een (1977) and Ayabe-Kanamura et al.(1998) may be due to cooking styles, i.e. an aspect of culture, or indeed of early habituation (Rozin & Schiller, 1980) -- hot curries in childhood apparently raise your tolerance for chilli for life. Environment or non-language cultural factors can then also be correlated with cognition differences.

So what is the evidence for direct links between cognition and language itself? Let us look at a handful of research-based studies:

- grammatical gender and perception of objects. Grammatical gender is a formal property of many languages in which different elements in the sentence such as adjectives and verbs ‘agree’ with nouns by having a consistent set of properties (Corbett, 1991), i.e. it should not be confused with the everyday meaning of gender as ‘sex’. Languages have an arbitrary number of genders in this sense, Polish for example having five. In languages with ‘natural’ gender such as English, feminine pronouns like she go with nouns referring to females like woman; masculine he with nouns referring to males man, and neuter it with nouns referring to inanimates rock. In languages with ‘arbitrary’ gender such as French, nouns are assigned to genders regardless of whether they are male, female or neuter, though there are often semantic or phonological patterns to such assignment, French feminine nouns, for instance, having more syllables (Matthews, 2009); often gender agreement in arbitrary gender languages goes beyond pronouns to include adjectives, verb inflections, articles, and prepositions. In Italian a toothbrush is masculine spazzolino, while a key is feminine chiave; in German a ball is masculine Ball, while a girl is notoriously neuter Mädchen. So do people who speak languages with natural gender systems ascribe gender to objects differently from people who speak arbitrary gender languages? Sera, Forbes, Burch, & Rodriquez (2002) found that children over the age of eight who spoke French and Spanish, both arbitrary gender languages, associated female voices with objects referred to by nouns with feminine gender in their language, differing from children who spoke English and from those who spoke German, another arbitrary gender language. Thus the semantic difference between arbitrary and natural gender seems to go with how gender is assigned to objects in the world.

- direction of writing and representation of time. The direction in which a script is read or written is crucial to reading and writing, varying inter alia between right-to-left, as in Arabic, Hebrew and Urdu, and left-to-right, as in English, Cyrillic, and Devanagari. Children who speak Hebrew or Arabic represent temporal concepts visually from right-to-left, for instance ranging pictures of daily meals in a right-to-left sequence, whereas English-speaking children order them from left-to-right (Tversky, Kugelmass, & Winter, 1991). Writing directionality differs from most spoken language in that it is explicitly taught to children, though it does also occur in the environment, for example the left-to-right sequence of English before-and-after advertisements for weight-loss, home improvement, and the like. An aspect of the language system is linked with the way that children organize temporal concepts, discussed further in Tversky (this volume). The same applies to perception of geometrical shapes: Japanese children trained in a predominantly visual writing system remember shapes better than English children with a mostly phonologically based script (Mann, 1986). Other aspects of literacy have also been linked to cognition: Goody (2000) sees literacy itself as introducing a profound change in human memory systems; Luria (1976) showed that literate people reason in a more abstract way.

- verb expression and motion. Languages vary in how they describe change of location; Spanish speakers typically use verbs that specify the path of a motion event and describe the manner of motion separately, as in entra caminando ‘he enters walking’; the verb entra shows the path ‘from outside to inside’ and caminando shows the manner ‘walking’, rather than say running or cycling. English speakers specify the manner with path using a particle he walked in -- verb-framed versus satellite languages (Talmy, 1985). Native English speakers and Spanish speakers living in the US indeed judge the similarity of pictures of motion events depending upon the “salience of the path dimension in the linguistic descriptions” (Gennari, Sloman, Malt, & Fitch, 2002). Von Stutterheim, Bastin, Carroll, Flecken, and Schmiedtová (to appear) show that people's eyes explore images of motion differently according to the motion-structure used in their language. Czechowska and Ewert (this volume) extend such differences to pairs of languages even within the same overall group. So a preferred way of describing motion may be linked to an aspect of cognition.

- countable/uncountable (count/mass) nouns and classification. In English, nouns such as flour are called uncountable, i.e. have a zero article flour rather than an indefinite article a flour and seldom occur in the plural flours; countable nouns like bottle on the other hand can have an indefinite article a bottle and occur in the plural bottles. Uncountables can, if necessary, be counted through a phrase a bag of flour. Japanese nouns are uncountable in that there are no articles in Japanese; they are ‘counted’ through a range of classifiers that vary according to the type of object referred to, issatsu no hon, literally ‘one-classifier book’, and ippai no mizu ‘one-classifier for container water’. The material/shape distinction in cognition mentioned above is related to this count/mass difference by Imai & Gentner (1997): the reason why American children categorise objects more by shape, Japanese children more by material, may be their respective languages. The way in which people classify nouns therefore connects with how they classify objects in the world.

Overall, question 2 receives a positive answer: Some aspects of cognition seem to go with particular aspects of language in a measurable way. The question differs from the structure-based approach in Lucy (1997, this volume) only by relating established differences in cognition to language rather than by relating descriptions of language differences to cognition; the attempt to relate aspects of language and aspects of cognition is the same in both cases.


Before  continuing, we need to comment briefly on the other partner in the two-way relationship -- language -- which is often taken for granted (Cook, t.a.). The meanings of the English word language are not necessarily found in other languages: The distinction in French between langue, langage, and parole (de Saussure, 1915/1976) for instance has always been a bugbear for English-speaking linguists. Given that the language of academic discussion for most research in language and cognition is English, researchers may indeed be constrained by the English interpretation of language.

At its most general, language and cognition research concerns language as a property of human beings: The semantic primes of Wierzbicka (1996) such as ‘part’, ‘kind’ (the relationship between things) or ‘big’, ‘small’ (the size of things) make good candidates for a central inalienable core of human language and human cognition; Lucy (1997, p. 292) describes a semiotic level at which “speaking any natural language at all may influence thinking” -- people think differently from apes because they have language. At a more specific level, the research concerns internalized language in people’s minds -- how individuals know properties of nouns such as mass/count -- which is by no means isomorphic with the institutionalized ‘standard’ language of grammar books and dictionaries; the fact that the grammar books state particular syntactic rules for English does not mean that Geordies do not say Thank yous when addressing two people and individuals like the current UK Foreign Secretary do not say people like you and I. Research into language and cognition, if it is not clear about the meaning of language involved, tends to fall back by default on traditional school grammar and common-sense rather than the scientific study of language practiced in the twenty-first century. The four alternative approaches proposed by Lucy (1997), which Lucy (this volume) cuts down to three by eliminating behavior-centered, essentially come down to different interpretation of what language is.

Vyvyan Evans describes the Cognitive Commitment to provide “a characterization of language that accords with what is known about the mind and brain from other disciplines” (p.000). But there is also the Linguistic Commitment to employ views of language consonant with theories and descriptions from the language-related disciplines. To meet this, terms like grammatical gender and mass/count need a clear basis in contemporary theories and descriptions of language.

The Language Commitment also eventually involves investigating a broader range of aspects of language than the semantics of syntactic forms such as grammatical gender and the referential meaning of limited sets of words; as Sapir (1921, p. 181) pointed out, “the linguistic student should never make the mistake of identifying a language with a dictionary”. There are for instance a host of cross-linguistic syntactic differences crying out to be tested against cognition such as the differences between configurational languages with phrase structure and non-configurational languages without (Hale, 1983); the preposition/postposition divide between languages such as English and Japanese; the variable order of Subject (S), Verb (V) and Object (O) in the world’s languages (SOV, SVO, VSO, VOS, OVS/OSV) (Tomlin, 1986); and whether subjects are compulsory in the sentence (Whorf, 1941b/1956, p. 243), alias the pro-drop or null-subject parameter (Chomsky, 1981): All of these might well have as interesting links to cognition as the semantic aspects of grammatical form.

Question 3. Does a Correlation of Cognition with Language Imply a Causation, either from Cognition to Language or from Language to Cognition?

Assuming that some aspects of cognition do indeed correlate with aspects of language (question 2), question 3 examines whether one causes the other and the direction of the causality. Whether language creates differences in cognition or reflects pre-existing cognitive differences is the central and most bitterly controversial problem of research into language and cognition.

This question raises the historical ghosts of linguistic relativity in linguistics and philosophy, illustrated in the quotations in the box. To von Humboldt (1836/1999), cognition imposes general laws on language but in turn language gives form to cognition (though Humboldt is mostly concerned with language as the possession of a nation, i.e. a group, not of an individual). Boas (1920/1940) sees culture as confined by specific features of language, more or less as an aside to his general ideas on culture. Bally regards language as a straitjacket on cognition: “définer un  type de langue, c’est définer la manière dont elle déforme la realite” (defining a kind of language means defining the ways in which it distorts reality) (Forel, 2008, p. 123). Sapir (1921/n.d.) on the other hand calls language a “garment for thought”: it is not separate from thought, it is its highest form -- in some ways an antecedent of cognitive linguistics; different languages predispose people to particular ways of thinking (although his views on language and thought amount to a few asides in a general account of language). Whorf (1940/1956) develops the idea of languages constraining cognition more extensively through “the linguistic relativity principle” that a person’s way of seeing the world is relative to the language they speak.

Out of the writings of Sapir and Whorf, others drew the Whorf-Sapir Hypothesis that language affects cognition: How you speak structures how you think. An infuriating aspect of the discussion of linguistic relativity issue is the tendency for people, to debate not the actual issues involved, but their interpretation of the writings of Whorf and Sapir in terms of such slogans as ‘determinism’ and ‘weak and strong’ versions of relativity (Casasanto, 2008; Lucy, this volume), rather like the exegesis of a sacred text.

                            Historic quotations

Humboldt (1836/1999):
… the requirements that thinking imposes on language, from which the general laws of language arise … language is the formative organ of thought. (p. 54)

Boas (1920):
The categories of language compel us to see the world arranged in certain definite conceptual groups which, on account of our lack of
knowledge of linguistic processes, are taken as objective categories and which, there­fore, impose themselves upon the form of our thoughts. (p. 289)

From the point of view of language, thought may be defined as the highest latent or potential content of speech … (1921/n.d., p. 14)
What if language is not so much a garment as a prepared road or groove? (1921/n.d., p. 15)
… nor can I believe that language and culture are in any true sense causally related. Culture may be defined as what a society does and thinks. Language is a particular how of thought, (1921/n.d., p. 216)

… we see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of inter­pret­ation (1929)

Concepts of ‘time’ and ‘matter’ are not given in substantially the same form by experience to all men but depend upon the nature of the language or languages through the use of which they have been developed. … probably the apprehension of space is given in substantially the same form by experience irrespective of language. (1941a/1956, p. 158)
… the “linguistic relativity principle”, which means, in informal terms that users of markedly different
grammars are pointed by their grammars towards different types of observations and differ­ent eval­uations of externally similar acts of observ­ation, and hence are not equivalent as observers but must arrive at somewhat different views of the world. (1940/1956, p. 221)

The slender evidence provided for these claims in the writings of these pioneers has mostly been disputed or ridiculed, for example Whorf’s claim that Inuit languages have seven words for snow, leaving them as the precursors of later work rather than as a foundation for enquiry. Sometimes, as Lenneberg (1953) points out, Whorf’s evidence depends on translation from another language into English -- what would this mean if it were English? -- rather than any independent proof of different cognition; Wierzbicka (this volume) discusses the dangers in treating English as a universal metalanguage for discussing cognition. One distinction between these early approaches and later ones is that the early evidence comes from observation of language in use rather than from the psychology-style experiments used from the 1950s onwards (Lucy, 1996); Ervin-Tripp (this volume) provides a fascinating account of the seminal work in this area.

A crucial though seldom-made distinction, touched on implicitly by Whorf (1941a/1956) in his concept of ‘habitual thought’, is that between short-term causation in which the specific language used affects access during processing, and long-term causation in which the specific language learnt affects the long-lasting cognition of the user, essentially on-line performance versus perma-store competence. One dimension to this is the relationship between language and cognition in the development of the individual; another is the relationship between Whorf’s habitual thought in the adult and what Lucy (1997, p. 307) calls “linear real-time processing of thinking”. That is to say, whether the cognitive development of a human child over many years depends upon language is a different question from whether the mature cognitive apparatus of the adult depends upon language during mental processing. The links between language and cognition might be the sand carried by the stream or the sand deposited on the lake bottom (as Weinreich famously said about language transfer, 1953, p. 11) -- a diachronic process that occurs throughout development or a synchronic process happening at the moment of speaking. Sera et al.(2002, p. 396) show how “grammatical gender can lead speakers of a language to think about inanimate objects in terms of properties they associate with males and females”, varying between natural gender languages such as English and arbitrary gender languages such as French. A linguistic system here correlates with a cognitive difference -- a short-term processing link. Indeed Stapel & Semin (2007) point out that such staples of psychology research as semantic priming discussed by Knickerbocker and Altarriba (this volume) rely on short-term effects of language on cognition. Siegal, Kobayashi Frank, Surian, and Hjelmquist (this volume) see Theory of Mind awareness in children as arising from certain types of conversational interaction, such as hearing other people talking about their interpretations of people’s actions -- long-term development. De Villiers (2000) indeed points to the syntactic underpinning of syntax necessary for the child to understand the instructions in Theory of Mind tasks.

The results of temporal sequence research seem unequivocal: Children taught to read from right-to-left think differently from children taught left-to-right direction, a long-term effect (Tversky et al., 1991). Apart from minor environmental influences, the cause can only be the language difference. Still researchers vary in their views of the relationship between language and child development. Tversky et al.(1991, pp. 551-552) take it more as a process of selecting from a set of concepts available to children:

The similarity of systems invented repeatedly by different children and by different cultures can be taken as evidence for some compelling cognitive correspondences between people’s conceptions of the world and their external representations of them.

In their classification study, Imai and Gentner (1997, p. 169) claim that “children universally make a distinction between individuals and non-individuals in word learning but that the nature of the categories and the boundary between them is influenced by language”. Barner, Inagaki, and Li (2009, p. 329) also suggest that “speakers of Mandarin, English, and Japanese draw on a universal set of lexical meanings, and that mass-count syntax allows speakers of English to select among these meanings”. This approach does not commit researchers to a straightforward causal relationship between language and cognition so much as a view that cognition is universal and a particular language in some way constrains the elements available -- very similar to the Chomskyan view of cognition as a set of innate universal concepts “essentially available prior to experience” (Chomsky, 1991, p. 29). The conclusion of the motion studies in Gennari et al.(2002) is similar: The language effect occurred only when language was relevant during initial encoding: “Linguistic descriptions directed attention to certain aspects of the events later used to make a non-linguistic judgement.” (p. 77). In other words language did not so much impinge upon the concept of motion itself as upon the ways people accessed the concept through language -- thinking for language.

Translating correlation into causation is notoriously hard, often resting more on unassailable arguments and accumulation of evidence than on the straightforward outcome of experiments. Correlation may be caused by some underlying factor not tested for. When the link between lung cancer and smoking depended on correlation alone, at one time it was argued that that the underlying cause of cancer might be underlying genetic or personality differences which correlated with a  propensity to smoke rather than smoking itself. So, in the case of language and cognition, it could be culture, environment, or still others. To settle the language/cognition relationship developmentally would require bringing children up in two groups with particular languages in the identical physical environment, rather like a mammoth twin-study, clearly an ethically-forbidden experiment except for King Psammeticus who, according to Herodotus (ca 430 BC) isolated children with a silent shepherd for two years to see which language emerged spontaneously (Thomas, 2006), and for the fictional treatment in The Embedding (Watson, 1973) in which children become superhuman by learning to handle multiply-embedded constructions.

To sum up, these studies do not make a conclusive case for language being the cause of some aspects of cognition. Mostly they are concerned with the synchronic processing of language and cognition rather than with the diachronic development of language and cognition. Overall they seem to support a so-called ‘weak’ version of linguistic relativity in which language facilitates cognition rather than a ‘strong’ version in which language determines cognition -- if in fact the strong relativity position has actually ever been held by someone rather than acting as a strawman to be denigrated (Swoyer and others in this volume debate the weak and strong versions of linguistic relativity at greater length).

The alternative possibility that cognition drives language development has received less attention. Yet in developmental terms, Sapir (1921, p. 16) claimed “The point of view that we have developed does not by any means preclude the possibility of the growth of speech being in a high degree dependent on the development of thought”. In Piagetan research, the assumption was that cognitive development triggered language acquisition, explored for instance by Sinclair-de-Zwart (1967) and Bruner (1983). The influential review by Cromer (1974) concluded that, while language development does not always relate to cognition, when there is a relationship, language depends on cognitive development. Gathercole (this volume, p. 000) similarly believes “extensive pursuit over the last decades of meticulous work exploring the relationship between language and cognitive development has indicated that language and cognition interact in development”.  Bowerman (1996, p. 170) nonetheless feels that “spatial thought -- undeniably one of our most basic cognitive capacities -- bears the imprint of language.”

Presumably all theories that deny that language is a specific module in the mind, whether emergentism or behaviourism, will see a common underlying source for all cognitive processes. The view from cognitive linguistics (V. Evans, this volume, p. 000) is that “the concepts we have access to, and the nature of the ‘reality’ we think and talk about, are grounded in the multimodal representations that emerge from our embodied experience”. Language and cognition are then an inter-related inseparable system, and causation is irrelevant, or at any rate partial.

Question 4. Can Cognition be Changed by Appropriate Language Control or Teaching for Individuals, Children or Societies?

If questions 1-3 are answered affirmatively, there still remains the question for an applied linguist of whether deliberately changing people’s language actually alters their cognition. This section extends the discussion outside the narrow academic discussion of cognition and language to the powerful if vague influences on human life which often feature in popular discussions. The intention is to remind us that the academic study of language and cognition has, or should have, consequences for everyday problems and issues facing individuals and governments.

One relevant attempt to cause cognitive change through language correlated language level with Piagetan stage and then taught children the language of the next stage, with little effect (Sinclair-de-Zwart, 1967). Ervin-Tripp (this volume) describes Carroll’s discovery that Navaho children sort objects by form because of their language, American children acquire it from playing with blocks in pre-schools. One education approach in the UK is known as ‘teaching thinking’ -- “an umbrella term used to describe a range of interventions, which have been classified into three groups: context independent, … subject-based programmes, …and subject infusion”  (Leat & Lin, 2003, p. 000). Worthwhile as these approaches may be on other educational grounds, in so far as they involve changing thinking by language intervention, we still do not know that language change promotes changes in cognition, even if educationalists often take this for granted (and this could arguably be said to be the heart of all education). The 1970s saw organized intervention to redress disadvantaged groups in society such as Sesame Street and Talk Reform (Gahagan & Gahagan, 1970), with language being a key ingredient; the overall benefits of Sesame Street for its child viewers have been well-documented (Fisch & Truglio, 2001). Inasmuch as attempts to teach learning-disabled children to use Makaton or children with reading difficulties to handle letter-shapes go beyond their language briefs, these too rely on the idea of changing cognition through language intervention. As indeed do claims for the educational and social advantages of learning another language, as we shall see in Chapter 7. In reverse, the practice of Steiner schools is not to teach reading till the child’s milk-teeth have dropped out (Steiner, 1968/1997), making language development clearly depend on physical maturation.


Despite the reluctance of researchers over the years to commit themselves to the view that language determines cognition, in everyday life this is precisely what popular movements have assumed, particularly the attempts to improve the workings of society and the minds of individuals by changing their language. One form this takes is control of language through ‘anti-ism’, whether anti-sexism deploring the effects of male-dominated language such as the use of chairman, anti-racism concerned with the effects of race-tinged language such as the use of Paki or gyppo, oranti-classism concerned with the effects of ‘elaborated’ middle-class language on working-class children’s education (Bernstein, 1971), such as the working-class preference for exophoric pronouns relating language to the immediate environment rather than anaphoric pronouns referring to aspects of discourse. The items of language discussed change from decade to decade; yesterday’s ban on girl for ‘mature women’ is superseded by today’s use of girl for ‘vital female youth’, as in Spice Girls. Academic research is not immune to these pressures. However much they disagree with linguistic relativity, researchers are careful to submit papers with non-specific gender he/she or they for people in general and with participant rather than subject (Stapel & Semin, 2007); the publishers’ instructions to contributors to this book say “Avoid the use of ‘he’ (when he or she is meant) wherever possible, either through the use of ‘they’ or by repeating the noun” (Psychology Press, no date).

The worthy belief that changing the language improves the world is often put down by being labelled political correctness -- the Guardian once called it “petty bourgeois linguistic anti-racism”: We can lessen the discrimination against particular groups by censoring the language we use about them. It is certainly best, for example, not to use the word schizophrenic to mean when people “seem to have very different purposes or opinions” (COBUILD, 1995), exemplified in the “rather schizophrenic way in which the Whorfian question has been viewed” (Gentner & Goldin-Meadow, 2003, p. 4). Such use “does an injustice to the enormity of the public health problems and profound suffering associated with this most puzzling disorder of the human mind” (Gottesman, 1991) and is in fact banned in some, if not all, newspaper style sheets. The proscriptions on vocabulary do affect language usage: The numbers of the pronoun she in Time Magazine almost doubled between 1960 and the present, while the numbers of he went down; indeed the usage of several contributors to this volume is evidence of changes in gender choice in pronoun use. Whether this affects people’s cognition and attitudes is another matter; Khosroshahi (1989) found that adopting non-sex-marked generic pronouns affected women’s drawing of generic objects but not men’s; avoiding the split-personality meaning of schizophrenic may improve politeness, but have little effect on attitudes to mental illness.

Language can then be blamed for the general ills of humankind. For example the theories of Western scientists may be constrained by the notions of Noun and Verb (Whorf, 1941b/1956), say imposing a dichotomy between light as a noun-like particle or as a verb-like wave; like much subsequent discussion in linguistic relativity research, this treats Noun and Verb as a semantic rather than a syntactic category. Halliday (1990/2001) sees growthism as built-in to the use of scientific language through elaborate nominal groups such as interpretations of experiments on syntactic processing in cotton-top tamarin and through the use of uncountable nouns for natural resources  -- water suggests inexhaustibility, a water suggests finiteness. The field of ecolinguistics has indeed developed the concept of language interfacing with society for good or for ill (Fill & Muhlhausler, 1990). Recent years have shown many example of the entrenched belief that saying the words will in itself change people’s thinking, whether political slogans like “Education, education, education” or mission statements such as “Regionally rooted, nationally influential, and globally respected” (Cook, 2009).

One intriguing possibility is the effect of computer languages and computer programs on our cognition. Iverson (1980) talked of the positive advantages of using the computer language APL (which he invented); Programming languages, because they were designed for the purpose of directing computers, offer important advantages as tools of thought”. The computer language Prolog has been taught to children for similar reasons (Colbourn & Light, 1987). On the negative side, Tufte (2003) attributes poor thinking, and indeed the crash of the Space Shuttle, to the ubiquitous use of Powerpoint. Eco (1994) writing on PC users versus Mac users speculates “One may wonder whether, as time goes by, the use of one system rather than another leads to profound inner changes.”

The aircrash with the biggest loss of life to date may have been caused by a confusion in the specialized international English of air traffic control (Tajima, 2004). A Dutch pilot of a Boeing 747 departing from Tenerife announced We are now at take-off, meaning ‘we are now actually taking off’, the Spanish air traffic controller understood ‘we are now waiting at the take-off position’, with tragic consequences. Reforming particular specialised areas of language to remove ambiguities or unclarities for safety reasons alone seems a useful enterprise; airlines rely on passengers understanding the emergency command brace brace, an untypical use of a low frequency verb and a puzzle to non-native speakers of English. Indeed one of Whorf’s original motivations for pursuing linguistic relativity was the kind of language problems he encountered as a fire inspector (Whorf, 1941a/1956); for example a little-used electric fire on a wall was seen as ‘a place to put coats’; when someone turned on what they thought was ‘the light-switch’, the building caught fire. Hence one practical interest is how the short-term processing of language impacts upon cognition: How we encode the environment at the moment of speaking affects our behaviour.

Many proposals have gone further than the banning of particular words or meanings. The most notorious was the general semantics movement based on Korzybski (1933), which attempted to make language more logical by abandoning Aristotelian either/or choices, fictionalised in the Van Vogt (1948) classic The World of Null-A (A for Aristotelian). Reforming language removes undesirable thoughts. At the positive end of the scale comes Halliday’s consciousness-raising of the environmental implications of linguistic behaviour for society and the world (Halliday, 1990/2001). At the negative end comes the thought control of Newspeak specially designed by Big Brother in Nineteen Eighty Four not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc [English Socialism] but to make all other forms of thought impossible” (Orwell, 1949). The proposals for various kinds of simplified language such as Basic English (Ogden, 1937) often have overtones of language control of thought.

So, as well as continuing to fascinate and infuriate researchers, the language/cognition interface is also involved in many aspects of everyday life, including government policies. It would seem well to establish its strengths and limitations on as firm a basis as possible to inform people how feasible such implementations are likely to be.

The crucial element missing from the discussion so far is individuals or groups who use two or more languages. In terms of the numbers of human beings alive today, this is a colossal oversight common to most of the research in this area. There may well be more people who use two or more languages in their everyday lives than there are monolinguals in the world. In addition the advantage of second language users for research into language and cognition is that these can be desynchronised, unlike first language development and use; “It would be highly useful if we could, so to speak, disengage the two processes of language and cognitive development and look at people whose level of thinking is out of step with their level of language.” (Cook, 1981, p. 255). For these reasons  the role of second language users is at the centre of this book, starting with the background to language and cognition in Chapter 7 and becoming the focus of Chapters 6 to 21.


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