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Languageand Perception

15 February, 2016 - 15:41

To this point in the chapter we have considered intelligence and language as if they are separate concepts. But what if language influences our thinking? Theidea that languageand its structures influenceand limit human thought is called linguistic relativity.

The most frequently cited example of this possibility was proposed by Benjamin Whorf (1897– 1941), an American linguist who was particularly interested in Native American languages. Whorf argued that the Inuit people of Canada (sometimes known as Eskimos) had many words for snow, whereas English speakers have only one, and that this difference influenced how the different cultures perceived snow. Whorf argued that the Inuit perceived and categorized snow in finer details than English speakers possibly could, because the English language constrained perception.

Although the idea of linguistic relativism seemed reasonable, research has suggested that language has less influence on thinking than might be expected. For one, in terms of perceptions of snow, although it is true that the Inuit do make more distinctions among types of snow than do English speakers, the latter also make some distinctions (think “powder,” “slush,” “whiteout,” and so forth). And it is also possible that thinking about snow may influence language, rather than the other way around.

In a more direct test of the possibility that language influences thinking, Eleanor Rosch (1973) 1 compared people from the Dani culture of New Guinea, who have only two terms for color (“dark” and “bright”), with English speakers who use many more terms. Rosch hypothesized that if language constrains perception and categorization, then the Dani should have a harder time distinguishing colors than would English speakers. But her research found that when the Dani were asked to categorize colors using new categories, they did so in almost the same way that English speakers did. Similar results were f ound by Frank, Everett, Fedorenko, and Gibson (2008), 2 who showed that the Amazonian tribe known as the Pirahã, who have no linguistic method for expressing exact quantities (not even the number “one”), were nevertheless able to perform matches with large numbers without problem.

Although these data led researchers to conclude that the language we use to describe color and number does not influence our underlying understanding of the underlying sensation, another more recent study has questioned this assumption. Roberson, Davies, and Davidoff (2000) 3 conducted another study with Dani participants and found that, at least for some colors, the names that they used to describe colors did influence their perceptions of the colors. Other researchers continue to test the possibility that our language influences our perceptions, and perhaps even our thoughts (Levinson, 1998), 4 and yet the evidence for this possibility is, as of now, mixed.


  • Language involves both the ability to comprehend spoken and written words and to speak and write. Some languages are sign languages, in which the communication is expressed by movements of the hands.
  • Phonemes are the elementary sounds of our language, morphemes are the smallest units of meaningful language, syntax is the grammatical rules that control how words are put together, and contextual information is the elements of communication that help us understand its meaning.
  • Recent research suggests that there is not a single critical period of language learning, but that language learning is simply better when it occurs earlier.
  • Broca’s area is responsible for language production. Wernicke’s area is responsible for language comprehension. Language learning begins even before birth. An infant usually produces his or her first words at about 1 year of age.
  • One explanation of language development is that it occurs through principles of learning, including association, reinforcement, and the observation of others.
  • Noam Chomsky argues that human brains contain a language acquisition module that includes a universal grammar that underlies all human language. Chomsky differentiates between the deep structure and the surface structure of an idea.
  • Although other animals communicate and may be able to express ideas, only the human brain is complex enough to create real language.
  • Our language may have some influence on our thinking, but it does not affect our underlying understanding of concepts.
  1. What languages do you speak? Did you ever try to learn a new one? What problems did you have when you did this? Would you consider trying to learn a new language?
  2. Some animals, such as Kanzi, display at least some language. Do you think that this means that they are intelligent?