Is Language Related to Thinking?
Language: An Overview
Language is spoken, written, or signed communication using a system of symbols. It's different from nonverbal cues, such as body "language" or facial expressions that also convey emotions or messages. The defining feature of language is the use of symbols. Many cognitive psychologists are recognizing the possibility that language forms the majority of our declarative than our nondeclarative memory. As a communication tool, language's basic adaptive function is to help communicators pass information from one generation to another, thus enriching cultural heritage, which, in turn, further develops language and the user's understanding of the world (world schema).
One of the essential properties of language is that it can multiply and generate an endless number of meanings despite its limited rules. This property is called infinite generativity. The structure of language is based on a set of limited rules established by phonology (phonemes, or the acceptable sound sequences), morphology (morphemes, or the acceptabled letter sequences; also known as the smallest unit of language that actually carries meaning; for example, morphemes "help" and "er" have two different meanings, relating to the action and the doer of the action, respectively), syntax (appropriate word arrangements; also known as grammar), and semantics (appropriate combination of morphemes to form a word; also known as vocabulary). Because of infinite generativity, we can create new words and construct endless sentences, paragraphs and stories, despite language's rigid rules.
Relationship Between Language and Cognition
Psychologists are looking into the subject of language because of its possible and somewhat obvious relation with thinking. For instance, can you remember a time when you were thinking about something without actually mentally talking to yourself? Virtually none, right? We even talk to ourselves about minute events, like when we accidentally touch a hot surface, in which we automatically say either quietly or loudly that "It hurts!". We say this even we are alone, eh? Because of these common events, psychologists are now agreeing that language could form part or even majority of our declarative memory, or that component of our long-term memory that comprise ideas and information that can be verbally communicated. Additionally, many have deeply speculated about the link between language and cognition. Among the popular ideas about this obvious link are:
Language as a tool for representing ideas. Gentner and Lowenstein proposed in 2001 that we use language whenever we form concepts. By labeling the concepts, we are, in effect, distinguishing it from other concepts that have been labeled before or will be possibly labeled in the future. Recall that whenever we process information as the intermediate level, we first recognize or become aware of the stimulus and then start to label it. Thus, not only does language allow us to create new ideas, it also helps us assign names to these ideas, thereby facilitating and smoother memory encoding process.
Language as a reflection of our own perspectives. Benjamin Whorf and student Edward Sapir have noticed in 1956 that possessing less vocabulary generally entails less understanding or knowledge. For instance, the Inuits in Alaska have different words of snow based on the texture, color, and physical states. Obviously, if the Inuits can distinguish different kinds of snow based on these properties, they then can be considered more knowledgeable about snow that most Americans are. Additionally, Hopi Indians have significantly less words about the past and the future; most of the action words are constructed using the present tense. This reflects how the Hopi Indians value the present more than the past and the future. Lastly, the Philippines is an agricultural nation with rice as its staple. Compare that to wheat in western countries. Consequently, they possess rich vocabulary on rice, classifying it accordingly as cooked, uncooked, overcooked, undercooked, fried, leftovers, and many more according to class or type. Thus, it is safe to say that Filipinos are experts when it comes to rice.
Language as a reflection of our cultural values and experiences. Eleanor Rosch disputes Whorf and Sapir back in 1973 by showing that having less vocabulary on a subject does not necessarily mean less knowledge about it. For example, the Dani culture in New Guinea has only two labels for color - white and black. Further probing shows that despite this lack of color naming, the Danis can nonetheless identify one hue from another. In this case, using the examples above, it could mean that the Inuits value snow as much as the Hopi Indians value the present, and the Filipinos value rice.
Understanding the link between language and cognition is exciting, especially after knowing about the compelling ideas those psychologists have about it. Unfortunately, because of the complexity of both language and thinking, conclusive research studies are scarce, and the relationship between language and thinking is currently enveloped with a myriad of controversies. Today, many psychologists are debating about whether language shapes our thinking, or if our thought shapes language. Most behavioral neuroscientists are even proposing that there is no actual relationship between language and thinking, and that they are actually separate or distinct components that are biologically determined in every individual. One moving evidence is the curious case of Williams Syndrome, a genetic birth disorder. People with Williams Syndrome possess remarkably rich library of words and an impeccable command of grammar; despite this, they compare similarly with deaf adults when faced with problem solving tasks. Simply put, if language facilitates thinking through labeling, how come people with Williams Syndrome, who have a better grasp of language, are no better than deaf adults, who communicate only with limited hand gestures? Deaf adults may use hand gestures to label objects and ideas, but their gestures and the syntax of their gestures are significantly less enriched and less complex compared to the vocabulary and the grammar of those who have Williams Syndrome.
Controversies surrounding the relationship between language and thinking is not complete without touching into the subject of animal language. If language shapes thought, can we teach animals our language? Conversely, if thought shapes language, and since animals also think and perform cognitive activities, does it mean that they also have their unique language distinct to the human language? For instance, chimpanzees, like humans, also hunt for food, make tools, pat each other's backs, and embrace, kiss and hold hands. Do they also have their own labels of objects and ideas, and can they actually communicate with each other using these labels, much like the human language? The desire to uncover the relationship of language and thought led many psychologists onto the challenge of teaching animals our own language. The results were striking. Famous animals who seemed to have learned and used our language are:
- Washoe, a chimp who was adopted at 10 months old, was taught the American language. He knows 38 signs at 2 years old, and 160 signs at 5 years old. He also learned to combine the signs, indicating syntax and semantics.
- Sherman and Austin were taught how to get an object that matches the symbol on the screen from another room. Soon after, they learned to point at a symbol on the screen to choose what they want to eat.
- The Bonobos, scientifically called Pan paniscus, are rare pygmy chimpanzees who are considered friendlier and smarter than their cousins. Kanzi is so far the smartest bonobo. He can understand 600 spoken sentences. Using a board attached to a speech synthesizer, he can also respond with fairly complex sentences.
Today, many psychologists agree that animals can communicate with each other but it is not yet known whether they can rise up to the level of complexity of human language.