Review of Language in Mind
|Date: Thu, 4 Dec 2003 10:18:46 -0500
From: Katharine Beals
Subject: Language In Mind: Advances in the Study of Language and Thought
Gentner, Dedre and Susan Goldin-Meadow, ed. (2003) Language in Mind:
Advances in the Study of Language and Thought, MIT Press.
Katharine Beals, Ph.D., Autism Language Therapies
"Language in Mind", edited by Dedre Gentner and Susan Goldin-Meadow,
collects 16 recent essays by premier scholars exploring the influence
of language on thought. Here Whorf's hypothesis that linguistic
differences may cause differences in thinking, widely embraced in the
1950s and 1960s, lately the object of so much scorn and skepticism
(Pinker 1994; Devitt and Sterelny 1987), receives renewed attention.
Today's better understanding of linguistic distinctions and
psychological processes affords more precise hypotheses about language
and cognition and more scientific methods of testing them.
In the introductory chapter, Gentner and Goldin-Meadow lay out the
essays' broad thematic interconnections ("Whither Whorf"). Next, in a
section entitled "Position Statements", three opinion pieces introduce
some of the underlying theoretical issues.
In "Languages and Representations", Eve V. Clark recalls Slobin's
(1996) distinction between "thinking for speaking" (what we do when we
select and combine words) and other types of thought. Thinking for
understanding, remembering, and categorizing may involve less
linguistic encoding and therefore less language-specific variation.
Even a given event can induce multiple mental representations, some of
which aren't motivated by the intent to use language; these, too, are
In "Language and Mind", Stephen C. Levinson adduces the huge variation
among the semantic structures of the world's languages as evidence
against the "nativist" emphasis on linguistic universals and the
"nativist" claim that universal, inborn concepts operate at the level
of mental computation. Decomposing the semantics of all languages would
produce a set of primitives larger than our notoriously short short-
term memories can handle. Rather, concepts are language-specific
constructs. Also language specific, given the ease and rapidity with
which we encode and decode propositions, is the conceptual
representation system closest to semantic representation.
In "Social Cognition", Michael Tomasello stresses the importance of
joint attention. Occurring whenever one attends to what the speaker is
attending to, joint attention does more than enable language learning.
Since there are many ways in which a speaker may attend to something,
attending to his attention teaches children multiple ways of construing
objects or events, vastly enlarging their cognitive capacities.
Language, Tomasello concludes, does not affect cognition, but is rather
a form of it (an essentially social one).
The next section, "Language as Lens: Does the Language We Acquire
Influence How We See the World?", addresses the question most akin to
Whorf's original hypothesis.
In "Sex, Syntax and Semantics," Lera Boroditsky, Lauren Schmidt, and
Webb Phillips compare Spanish and German students, and find significant
effects of grammatical gender on memory, on object descriptions, and on
judgments of picture similarity. They do so even when these tasks are
as non-linguistic as possible, and when the potential effects of
culture are eliminated in parallel experiments using a fictional
In "Speaking versus Thinking about Objects and Actions", Barbara C.
Malt, Steven A. Sloman, and Silvia P. Gennari analyze the naming and
sorting of artifacts and the memory and similarity judgments for events
involving motion and manner by speakers of languages that categorize
those artifacts and events differently. Only experiments involving
explicit linguistic encoding (where subjects were asked to name the
object or event) evinced language-specific differences.
Similar experiments, as well as experiments involving color and frames
of reference (Brown and Levinson 1993), are reviewed by Edward Munnich
and Barbara Landau in "The Effects of Spatial Language on Spatial
Representation: Setting some Boundaries." Observing that not just
explicit linguistic encoding, but also prior or covert linguistic
encoding, can influence empirical results, they argue that none of the
experiments with language-specific outcomes have ruled out covert
encoding. Linguistic experience reorganizes linguistic representations,
they conclude, but not nonlinguistic ones.
In "Language and Thought Online: Cognitive Consequences of Linguistic
Relativity", Dan Slobin points out that the effects of linguistic
experience and representations, or what he calls "thinking for
speaking," are nonetheless non-obvious and nontrivial. Comparing
languages whose verbs readily encode manner of motion (many Germanic
languages) with those that don't (many Romance ones), he discusses the
relative prevalence of manner verbs in the lexicons, conversations, and
narratives of the former. Noting that listeners and readers of manner
languages attend more to fine distinctions of manner of motion and form
more detailed mental images of manner in reported events, he proposes
that on-line linguistic experiences affect off-line memories for these
events and for events recorded for later reporting.
The next section, "Language as Tool Kit: Does the Language We Acquire
Augment Our Capacity for Higher-Order Representation and Reasoning?",
harkens back to Vygotsky (1962) more than to Whorf. More important than
cross-linguistic comparisons, here, are comparisons within a language
of speakers with different linguistic skills.
In "Why We're So Smart," Dedre Gentner argues that much of human
intelligence results from two species-specific faculties: analogical
thinking and language. Experiments show that giving more than one
object the same name invites children to extract similarities from
specifics, and that naming a relationship between objects likewise
helps them to extract relational concepts (e.g. "same" and
"different"). Such experiences move the child beyond the immediate and
concrete, bootstrapping her into ever higher levels of complexity and
abstraction: "[I]f a pattern discovered by analogy is named, it becomes
easier to see as part of yet another analogy." (p. 228).
In "Does Language Help Animals Think?" Stan A. Kuczaj, II and Jennifer
L. Hendry observe that while animals show cognitive skills that don't
require language-e.g. categorizing by perceptual properties- making
similarity judgments and integrating sensory information from different
modalities require symbols that abstract away from sensory details.
Perhaps also facilitated by language are relational inferences about
other points of view: language-enculturated dolphins have pointed at
things to direct attention. Whether language actually creates new
mental faculties, or merely facilitates existing ones (perhaps
affording new ways to express an extant theory of mind), remains
unclear. Of course, different animals are more or less capable of
learning and exploiting language. Additionally, echoing Tomasello's
paper, the authors remark that the most effective training involves
"social interaction and clear indications of the referential nature of
the symbols" as opposed to operant conditioning (p. 246).
In "What Makes Us Smart? Core Knowledge and Natural Language",
Elizabeth S. Spelke argues that many core knowledge systems thought to
be unique to human cognition-those relating to objects, number,
geometry-are in fact surpassed by those of animals. What makes us
smarter than them is our language faculty. The combinatoric properties
of language allow us to connect these inherently encapsulated, domain
and task-specific systems. Only those who've mastered spatial
language, for example, can connect shape and color systems into novel
concepts like "left of the blue wall." Similarly, language helps us
relate our two systems of number awareness: the precise recognition of
small numbers of distinct objects and of the effects of adding and
subtracting them, and the sense of set size that for large numbers is
only approximate. When we relate the counting routine ("one, two,
three"...) to both systems, we construct, through language, a new
knowledge system for large, exact numbers. Whether different languages
construct different concepts and conceptual systems out of their
universal building blocks (the core knowledge systems we all share)
depends on how much they vary in their combinatoric properties.
In "Conceptual and Linguistic Factors in Inductive Projections: How do
Young Children Recognize Commonalities between Animals and Plants",
Kayoko Inagaki and Giyoo Hatano focus on two knowledge domains: plant
and animal. Young children, who appear to lack the more general concept
of "living things", treat these domains as distinct. Linguistic clues,
however, can help them generalize across domains; how readily they do
so depends on phrasing ("eats/drinks" versus "needs food/water").
In "Language for Thought: Coming to Understand False Beliefs", Jill G.
de Villiers and Peter A. de Villiers focus on the uniquely human
ability to understand and reason about false beliefs (as in "He did
that because he thinks that the candle is an apple."). The acid test
for the representational theory of mind, such reasoning reaches beyond
external behavior into consciousness and differing points of view.
Surprising evidence suggests that children, even older, language-
delayed deaf children, cannot entertain false beliefs until they've
acquired a specific linguistic structure: sentences with embedded
complement clauses. Only children who can process such sentences pass
false belief tests, even if all the specific structures they've learned
contain verbs of communication rather than belief ("He said that the
candle is an apple"), and even if the tests themselves avoid language.
Only the embedded complement structure, acquired rather than innate,
provides "the right degree of representational richness for capturing
false beliefs." (p. 374).
The final section, "Language As Category Maker: Does the Language We
Acquire Influence Where We Make Our Category Distinctions?", returns to
cross-linguistic comparisons. It explores whether speakers of different
languages draw boundaries between categories in different places, and
whether concepts exist independently of language or are constructed by
In "Space under Construction: Language-Specific Spatial Categorization
in First Language Acquisition", Melissa Bowerman and Soonja Choi argue
that many spatial categories are not innate, but constructed by young
children under linguistic guidance. Experiments show Korean and
English-speaking children from as young as 18 months classifying
spatial events more like the adult speakers of their language than like
their same-age peers, and over-generalizing according to the language's
semantic and statistical properties. Citing Gentner's observations
about naming, they propose that children possess some innate categories
(containment) and context-specific sensitivities (awareness of
tightness of fit in specific situations). Hearing the same word for two
different things prompts children to fill in the gap between them,
partially mapping out a category; hearing different words for things
prompts children to draw category boundaries somewhere between them.
These effects extend into nonlinguistic cognition: nonverbal tasks show
Korean-speaking adults exhibiting greater awareness than their English-
speaking counterparts do of "tightness of fit", a distinction made only
In "Reevaluating Linguistic Relativity: Language-Specific Categories
and the Role of Universal Ontological Knowledge in the Construal of
Individuation", Mutsumi Imai and Reiko Mazuka agree with Bowerman and
Choi that language helps construct concepts from universal building
blocks. Their paper compares languages that make grammatical
distinctions between objects and substances (perhaps marking the former
as count nouns that take plural endings and the latter as mass nouns
that don't), and languages that make no such distinctions. Scrutinizing
various experiments which purport to show different sensitivities to
the distinction between objects and substances by speakers of different
languages, they argue that people of all ages nonetheless share a
fundamental awareness of the ontological differences between objects
and substances. Specific differences in categorization arise gradually
as children learn the norms of their culture.
In "Interaction of Language Type and Referent Type in the Development
of Nonverbal Classifier Preferences", John A. Lucy and Suzanne Gaskins
argue that other studies of linguistic influences on categorization,
including Imai and Mazuka's, have been skewed by specific assumptions
about innate, ontologically prior categories. It is both possible and
more revealing, they argue, to dispense with these highly debatable
questions entirely by starting with linguistic structure and deducing
the characterization of reality "implicit in it." (p. 465). So long as
linguistic differences (e.g. the grammatical encoding of the count-mass
distinction in English vs. the indiscriminant use of classifiers in
languages like Yucatec) yield corresponding differences in
classification (e.g. the tendency of older English speakers to classify
rigid artifacts by shape and of older Yucatec speakers to classify them
by material), one can reasonably infer an impact of language on
Finally, in "Thought before Language: Do We Think Ergative?", Susan
Goldin-Meadow examines how people with little exposure to conventional
language classify thematic roles-- specifically, whether language-
delayed deaf children classify intransitive actors ("John" in "John ran
home") like transitive actors or like transitive patients
(respectively, "John" and "cat" in "John hit the cat"). Most languages
are "accusative", classifying intransitive actors with transitive
actors; ergative languages treat them like transitive patients (English
equivalent: "Ran John home."). The spontaneous intentional gestures of
language-delayed deaf children from two distinct "accusative" cultures
(American and Chinese) follow the ergative pattern, despite the non-
ergative gestural patterns with which their parents reciprocate. The
gestures produced by adults to describe pictures without using speech,
and the eye movements of people viewing pictures, also evince ergative
classification and an ergative bias towards the patient. What in most
languages outweighs this deeply-rooted, pre-linguistic bias, Goldin-
Meadow surmises, are the competing demands for expressiveness, speedy
communication, and easy processing, better met (she doesn't say why) by
Emerging from all this research is one over-arching question: how deep
and broad are these various effects of language on thought?
Potentially, extremely so. The more simply a language expresses a
concept, for example, the easier it is to perform mental operations on
it. A language's most basic concepts are its most handy building blocks
for novel, complex concepts and innovative ideas in all sorts of
domains. Languages that delineate and construct concepts differently
may foster faster, clearer, and more creative thinking in certain areas
than other languages do. Further magnifying these cross-linguistic
conceptual differences are our metaphorical mappings from one domain to
another, especially from the spatial domain from which so many
metaphors extend, and in which so much cross-linguistic variation has
While most of the essays focus on linguistic effects on non-linguistic
thought, even the less debatable purely linguistic effects may, as
Slobin points out, be more significant than many of us realize. Much of
our conscious mental activity is verbal-not just whenever we think for
speaking, but often (consider all those extensive interior monologues)
when we think for ourselves. The effects of language on memory,
cognitive attention, and cognitive habits, dismissed by some as
applying only with linguistic encoding, may in fact occur all the time.
How great all these cross-linguistic differences are depends on how
broadly and deeply languages differ in their conceptual structures.
These studies reveal a variety of specific cross-linguistic
differences. But for all their conclusions about the classifications of
color, space, gender, artifacts, manner of motion, objects/materials,
actors/patients, we are far from a comprehensive inventory of the
semantic structures of the world's languages. Many (if not most) basic
domains, and most higher-order concepts, remain unexplored.
Along a number of dimensions, languages are similar: most if not all,
for example, have embedded complement clause structures and delineate
between animates and substances and transitive actors and intransitive
patients. While they may draw different boundaries between categories,
they often agree on the core exemplars. Furthermore, nearly all
scholars concede that at some level lies a pool of primitive, universal
concepts-the building blocks for all others. Perhaps at the other
extreme as well, above a certain level of complexity, most concepts can
be expressed with more or less equal facility in all languages. Even if
the similarities between languages outweigh the differences, however,
comparing those with language to those who lack it reveals a huge
influence of Language on thought.
Deliberate attempts to manipulate thought through language show
definite limits to the power of language. Societal prejudices survive
euphemistic language and nudge euphemisms ("retarded") back towards the
pejorative; gender-neutral language hasn't eliminated gender
discrimination and neutral terms ("co-ed") eventually assume the very
sorts of biases they were invented to circumvent.
As Levinson points out (p. 33), language may most affect habitual or
non-reflexive thought in specific domains, rather than the more
conscious, deliberate thinking that conceptualizes such notions as
Freedom and Equality (which, as Pinker observes, are ridiculous to
brand as unthinkable if nameless).
But some of these specific domains, e.g. gender, may influence many
others. Recall the Spanish and German speakers of Boroditsky et al's
study, who characterized keys and other objects (masculine in one
language, feminine in the other) in gender-stereotypical ways: keys
were "hard", "heavy", and "jagged" in German; "golden", "intricate",
and "lovely" in Spanish (p. 70). Might our conception of other things
more consequential than keys-- say, Freedom, and our choices between
pacifistic vs. militaristic routes to it-- depend somewhat, even if
ever-so-slightly, on what gender they assume in our language?
One of the most intriguing influences of Language on thought discussed
in this book is de Villiers and de Villiers conclusion that learning
embedded complement clauses enables the calculation of false beliefs--
the prerequisite, in turn, for a full-fledged theory of mind. Teaching
my autistic son complement clauses is on my agenda (right now we're
working on the syntax of yes-no questions). It's a tantalizing thought
that once he masters embedded complements, as I'm sure he will, he
might be able to reason about false beliefs. Given how unaware he is of
what goes on in other people's minds, achieving this (as improbable as
it seems) would strongly suggest that de Villiers and de Villiers
prerequisite is not just a necessary condition, but a sufficient one.
Perhaps people with full-blown autism never learn true language, even
when they appear to be verbal. Discussing the importance of joint
attention and social context in language learning, Tomasello observes
that "associating sounds with experience is not language" (p. 50). But
then how do autistics like my son, socially aloof and unaware, engage
in the sophisticated abstract and conditional thinking (as he does in
his many scientific experiments and innovative solutions to problems)
for which some have deemed language the sine qua non? At any rate,
highly verbal, highly autistic persons would make intriguing subjects
for future research on the influence of language on thought.
Finally, any conclusion on this topic must consider that sometimes what
looks like linguistic influence may instead be cultural. As Levinson
points out (p. 27), "[t]he contents of language, and much of its form,
are ... largely the products of cultural tradition". Myriad cultural
clues assist children in constructing language-specific concepts, he
notes. For example, "every aspect of the environment", and "a thousand
little details", help children internalize the frame of reference for
their language, whether it's a relative frame (left-right-front-back)
or an absolute one (North-South-East-West). In relative languages
there's the consistent way that books and doors open, the arrangement
of silverware or the sock drawer, the preferred side of the sidewalk,
(always to the right or left). In absolute language there's the
direction in which people point their heads when they sleep or build
their windbreaks (always to the North). In both types, additional clues
come from where people point when referencing absent entities. (p. 43).
But these observations suggest that the cognitive differences that
Levinson observes between speakers of absolute vs. relative languages--
for instance that the former have a better sense of direction-- may
stem from culture rather than language. Similarly, differences between
Yucatec and American culture may explain the relative bias towards
materials in the former: people in industrial societies are presumably
less involved in and conscious of the materials that compose implements
than those in societies where locals construct implements by hand.
(Lucy and Gaskins claim that the fact that 7-year-old Yucatec speakers
show the language contrast before they show the cognitive one rules out
a cultural influence, but perhaps the former are simply less involved
with and aware of materials are than the 9-year-olds the authors
contrast them with). Lastly, Tomasello's observations about how social
cognition is inextricably caught up in the effects of language on
thought raises the possibility that some of the ultimate cognitive
influences are social, not linguistic.
Besides raising these broad questions, "Language in Mind" proposes
reasonable answers to many smaller ones, along with dozens of
fascinating observations. Its contributors, with their more precise
understanding of linguistic distinctions and psychological processes,
and their carefully-constructed hypotheses and experiments, appear
fully capable of starting to answer the big questions convincingly.
Bickerton, D. (1995). Language and Human Behavior. Seattle: University
of Washington Press.
Devitt, M. and Sterelny, K. (1987). Language and Reality: An
Introduction to the Philosophy of Language. Oxford: Blackwell.
Pinker, S. (1994). The Language Instinct. New York: Morrow.
Slobin, D. (1996). From "thought and language" to "thinking for
speaking." In J. Gumperz and S. Levinson (Eds.), Rethinking Linguistic
Relativity (pp. 70-96). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Vygotsky, L. (1962). Thought and Language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Whorf, B. (1956). Language, thought, and reality: Selected Writings of
Benjamin Lee Whorf (J. Carroll, Ed.). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
| ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Katharine Beals received her Ph.D. in linguistics from the University
of Chicago in 1995. After working for five years as Senior Software
Engineer with the Natural Language Group at Unisys, she founded Autism
Language Therapies (http://autism-language-therapies.com), where she
designs and creates linguistic software for children with autism. She's
also working on a book about her deaf, autistic son, which explores
such issues as language modality, cochlear implants, and language and
consciousness in deaf and autistic people.