9 Language,
Thought, and
Prof. TIAN Bing
Shaanxi Normal
I. overvie w & history
An Introduction
IV. Methods and Testing
Traditional Thoughts of Education
Research M ethods
Foreign Language Education
Language Testing.
(Pedagogical) Lexicography
V. Learning
II. Lg Description
Language Descriptions
Language Corpora.
Discourse Analysis. vs CA
Second Language Learning.
Individual Differences in Second
Language Learning.
Social Influences on Language
VI. Teaching
III. Cognitive & Social
Fashions in Language Teaching
Language Acquisition: L1 vs L2
Language, Thought, and Culture.
Language and Gender.
Language and Politics.
Language Teacher Education.
World Englishes.
The Practice of LSP
Bilingual Education.
M ethodology.
Computer Assisted Language
Fig. 0 A Bird’s-Eye-Vie w of Applied Linguistic Studies
1. Introduction
9.1 Introduction
9.2 Language, Thought, and Culture and the
9.3 Re-Thinking Linguistic Relativity
9.4 Semiotic Relativity, or How the Use of a Symbolic System Affects Thought
9.5 Linguistic Relativity, or How Speakers of Different Languages Think
Differently When Speaking
9.6 Discursive Relativity
9.7 Language Relativity in Applied Linguistic Research
9.8 Language Relativity in Educational Practice
9.9 The Danger of Stereotyping and Prejudice
9.10 Instead of Language-Thought-and-Culture: Speakers/Writers, Thinkers,
and Members of Discourse Communities
9.11 Conclusion: The “Incorrigible Diversity” of Applied Linguistics
1. Introduction
The hypothesis that language both expresses and creates categories
of thought that are shared by members of a social group and that
language is, in part, responsible for the attitudes and beliefs that
constitute what we call “culture,” is a hypothesis that various
disciplines have focused on in various ways.
The field of applied linguistics, born in the fifties, at a time when the
relation-ship of language and mind was the primary concern of
formal linguistics, had a natural affinity to the brain sciences as
they were developed then.
Applied linguistics missed the heydays of empirical linguistics
research that had led linguists like Boas, Sapir, and Whorf to
investigate the relation of language and culture in preindustrialized societies.
In the rationalist spirit of the fifties and sixties, and its information
processing focus, the young field of applied linguistics was at first
primarily interested in the sycholinguistic processes at work in
language acquisition and testing, and in the cognitive dimensions
of language pedagogy.
In the eighties, the ascendancy of sociology and anthropology created
a favorable climate for applied linguists to explore, in addition, the
relation of language and social structure (Halliday, 1978), the
social psychological aspects of language acquisition (e.g., Ellis,
1986) and the multiple discursive aspects of language in use in a
variety of social contexts (e.g., Gumperz, 1982a & b; Ochs, 1988).
It is not before the nineties, however, that advances in cognitive
linguistics, linguistic anthropology, and the growing importance
given to culture in language education brought a renewed interest
in the relation of language, thought, and culture in applied
In this essay, I first review the canonical linguistic relativity
hypothesis and its current resurgence in various fields related to
applied linguistics.
I then examine three major strands of thought in the triadic relation –
language, thought, and culture – and how they are reflected in
applied linguistics research.
Finally, I explore the potential enrichment that the principle of
language relativity can bring to applied linguistics, both in its
theoretical endeavors and in its educational practice.
9.2 Language, Thought, and Culture and the
Problem of Linguistic Relativity
The relation of language, thought, and culture was first
expressed in the early nineteenth century by the two
German philosophers Johann Herder and Wilhelm von
Humboldt, and picked up later by the American
anthropologists Franz Boas, Edward Sapir, and Sapir’s
student Benjamin Lee Whorf, in what has come to be
called the linguistic relativity or Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.
9.2.1 Early precursors: Herder and von Humboldt
If it be true that we . . . learn to think through words, then
language is what defines and delineates the whole of human
knowledge . . . In everyday life, it is clear that to think is almost
nothing else but to speak. Every nation speaks . . . according to
the way it thinks and thinks according to the way it speaks.
(Herder, [1772] 1960, pp. 99–100, my translation)
. . . there resides in every language a characteristic world-view . . .
By the same act whereby [man] spins language out of himself, he
spins himself into it, and every language draws about the people
that possesses it a circle whence it is possible to exit only by
stepping over at once into the circle of another one.
(von Humboldt, [1836] 1988, p. 60)
9.2.2 The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis
The best known formulation of the relation of language,
thought, and culture is that captured by Sapir and Whorf
under the term “linguistic relativity.”
9.3Re-Thinking Linguistic
The strong version of linguistic relativity, or linguistic determinism, has
been pretty much discarded, for a variety of convincing reasons.
It is clear that translation is possible amongst languages, even
though some meaning does get lost in translation, so the language
web that Humboldt refers to does not seem to be spun as tightly as
he suggests.
Bi- or multilingual individuals are able to use their various languages in
ways that are not dictated by the habits of any one speech community.
And, with the increasing diversity of speakers within speech
communities around the globe, it is increasingly difficult to
maintain that all speakers of a language think the same way.
A weak form of the hypothesis has remained generally accepted.
But the idea that the grammar we use influences in some way
the thoughts that we communicate to others did not affect the young
field of applied linguistics at a time when rationalist, experimental,
and, moreover, monolingual modes of research dominated all
linguistic inquiry, and information processing theories of cognition
dominated western psychology.
The role of social context in language acquisition and use was a
strong component of linguistic research, but western linguists were
careful not to suggest in any way that the social context might
influence the way people speak and think.
A case in point is the debate between Basil Bernstein and William
Bernstein had linked speakers’ different ways with words (i.e.,
elaborated vs. restricted codes) with the social class of these
speakers (Bernstein, 1971). He suggested that middle-class
speakers use more elaborated codes, i.e., assume less prior
knowledge of their listeners, than working-class speakers, who
assume greater shared knowledge on the part of their listeners, and
thus use more restricted codes.
Labov violently rejected Bernstein’s views, showing that poor
black adolescents in New York’s inner city used as “elaborated” codes
as Bernstein’s middle-class whites, thus dispelling the idea that
social context conditions language use (Labov, 1972).
However, since the late eighties, the notion of linguistic relativity
has re-appeared in various, more sophisticated forms.
In a recent state-of-the-art article on “Language and worldview”
(1992), anthropologists Jane Hill and Bruce Mannheim argue that
the hypothesis was never a hypothesis, but an axiom that was
formulated at the time against “a naive and racist universalism in
grammar, and an equally vulgar evolutionism in anthropology and
history” (1992, p. 384).
The resurgence of the concept in applied linguistics is due to a
variety of developments in several related fields in the last 30
The first two come from work done in the twenties and thirties by
Vygotsky and Bakhtin in the then Soviet Union.
Vygotsky’s work, translated in the west in 1962 and 1978, became
particularly influential in applied linguistics through the neoVygotskyian research of psychologist James Wertsch (1985) and
linguist James Lantolf (2000).
The work of Mikhail Bakhtin, discovered and translated in the west
in the early eighties (1981, 1986), became influential in all areas of
western intellectual life through the work of American literary
scholars Michael Holquist (1990) and Gary Morson and Caryl Emerson
Bakhtin’s thought has ushered in a period of postmodernism that
questions the stable truths on which modern rationalism is based
and gives a new meaning to the notion of linguistic relativity within a
dialogic perspective.
The other developments come from the emergence of new fields within
the established disciplines of the social sciences.
Innovative research in cognitive semantics (Lakoff, 1987, Lakoff &
Johnson, 1980), cross-cultural semantics (Wierzbicka, 1992),
cognitive linguistics (Slobin, 1996; Levinson, 1997; Turner, 1996;
Fauconnier, 1985), and gesture and thought (McNeill, 1992) has
provided new insights into the relation of language and thought.
The social psychological study of talk and interaction as it is explored
through discourse and conversation analysis (see Jaworski &
Coupland, 1999; Moerman, 1988), discursive psychology (see
Edwards & Potter, 1992), cultural psychology (Stigler, Shweder, &
Herdt, 1990), and language socialization research (Schieffelin and
Ochs, 1986; Jacoby & Ochs, 1995) has opened up new ways of
relating thought and action.
Advances in linguistic anthropology (e.g., Silverstein, 1976:
Gumperz, 1982a and b; Friedrich, 1986; Hanks, 1996; Hymes,
1996; Becker, 2000) have placed discourse at the core of the nexus
of language, thought, and culture.
Finally, there is a growing body of research on bi- and multilingualism
that counteracts the monolingual bias prevalent until now in applied
linguistics (e.g., Romaine, 1995: Cook, 2000; Pavlenko, in press).
This research is enabling us to consider the conceptual and cultural
make-up of people who use more than one language in their daily
lives (Pavlenko, 1999).
Three edited volumes give the state of current research on the
relation of language, thought, and culture: Duranti and Goodwin
(1992), Gumperz and Levinson (1996), and Niemeier and Dirven
In his introduction to this last volume, Lucy makes the distinction
between three ways or levels in which language can be said to
influence thought.
The semiotic or cognitive level concerns the way any symbolic
system (versus one confined to iconic-indexical elements)
transforms thinking in certain ways.
The linguistic or structural level concerns the way particular
languages (e.g., Hopi vs. English) influence thinking about reality
in particular ways, based on their unique morphosyntactic
configurations of meaning.
The functional or discursive level concerns the way in which using
language in a particular manner (e.g., according to schooled,
scientific, or professional “cultures”) influences thinking. Semiotic,
linguistic, and discursive relativity interact in important ways. For
example, semiotic effects are associated with cognitive patterns, that in
turn are related to discourse regularities and cultural differences. I
examine how these three levels of language relativity have been
researched in recent years.
9.4 Semiotic Relativity, or How the Use of
a Symbolic System Affects Thought
From a phylogenetic perspective (the development of the
human species), the argument has been made by
biological anthropologist Terrence Deacon (1997) that the
acquisition of symbolic reference, by contrast with iconic or
indexical reference, represents a quantum leap in the
development of humankind that has led to the
development of uniquely human thought.
It is this leap that animals have never been able to
Using a Peircean terminology, Deacon argues that, whereas iconic
reference (i.e., a relation of similarity) is based on the negation of the
distinction between signs and their objects, and indexical reference
(i.e., a relation of contiguity) is based on the associative links
between iconic signs and their referents in the world,
symbolic reference builds on both iconic and indexical signs, and
adds the unique capacity of language as a semiotic system to
reflect cognitively upon itself, i.e., to refer to itself as a symbolic
system, and link sign to sign, word to word.
Symbolic reference represents the core semiotic innovation that
distinguishes the human “symbolic species” from other living
Deacon argues that the ability to manipulate symbols is in a
hierarchical relationship with the ability to manipulate iconic and
indexical signs.
Symbolic reference needs the two others, but goes beyond them,
adding an interpretive response to the mere perception of icons and
recognition of indexical links. What symbolic activity does is add sense,
which is something in the mind, to reference, which is something in the
world (Frege, 1879 in Deacon, 1997, p. 61).
Taking the American psychologist James Mark Baldwin as his anchor
point in the natural sciences, Deacon argues that the ability to use
language symbolically has phylogenetically affected the human brain,
not in a direct cause and effect manner, but indirectly through its effect
on human behavior and on the changes that human behavior brings
about in the environment.
Even though the ability to use language as a symbolic system
doesn’t bring about genetic changes in the nature of the brain, the
changes in environmental conditions brought about by human
symbolic responses to that environment can, in the long run, bias
natural selection and alter the selection of cognitive predispositions that
will be favored in the future.
The tension between semiotic determinism and semiotic relativity
underlies much of the work done by researchers in cognitive semantics
like George Lakoff (1987) and Mark Johnson (1987). They remind
us of the way in which language is both “in the mind” and also
quintessentially embodied as the “bodily basis of meaning, imagination
and reason” (Johnson, 1987).
Johnson goes one step further than Vygotsky, to show that
symbols have a way of changing not only our ability for
abstraction and reason, but also our imagination and emotions
(see also Varela, Thompson, & Rosch, 1991: and Shore, 1996).
This is nowhere more apparent than in the linguistic “metaphors
This is nowhere more apparent than in the linguistic “metaphors we
live by,” i.e., those expressions that we take as representing
reality “as it is,” but that are, in fact, mental representations or
conceptual spaces (Fauconnier, 1985; Turner, 1996) that are
constructed by language (Lakoff, 1987; Lakoff & Johnson, 1980).
They are so tied up with our bodily presence in the world that they
can arouse emotions and passions, and lead people to action
(see George Lakoff, 1992; Robin Lakoff, 1990, 2000).
The metaphors given by Lakoff and Johnson 1980, for example,
the mind is a container, are constructed by the language we use to
talk about the mind, as in “it slipped my mind,” or “you must be
out of your mind,” or in the phrase “comprehensible input.”
They permeate the language of the media, the professions, the
academic disciplines, and our daily conversations; they are often
invisible to us because they are so ever present.