Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis: Some Validity

Dave Munger reports on research testing the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis that language influences our thoughts. In an experiment on distinguishing aliens,

The students who saw the labels learned the difference between approachable and unapproachable aliens significantly faster than students who didn't see the labels -- even though the labels gave them no information that wasn't available in the unlabeled condition. During the testing session, 8 new aliens that hadn't been seen before (but were clearly members of one of the categories) were introduced. Once again, the students who had seen the labels performed significantly better (no labels were present during the testing session).

Many of the students in the unlabeled group actually reported that they invented their own names to keep track of the two kinds of aliens. A second experiment confirmed the effect using spoken words as labels instead of written words. Interestingly, a third method of labeling, on-screen location, did not produce results significantly different from unlabeled objects.

Here, it seems, we have a clear case of language influencing thoughts. When people have a label for a category of objects, they learn how to identify objects in that category quicker than if they don't have a label. They're also better at identifying new objects that they haven't seen before.

These findings have implications for learning to write. That is, by giving students labels to recognize different aspects of writing, such as warrants for example, they will be able to recognize them more effectively in others' writing, and hopefully in their own writing. I've seen that in my own students' writing. One student, some years ago, wrote the following two observations in his journal:

Well, practicing, that’s good. ... rhetoric theory, it’s good, because ... you have to have some organization and I knew what was definition argument, and evaluation argument, but I didn’t have words and conceptions for this. ... You have kind of structure ... for some things, but rhetoric gives you concepts, it’s more easy to deal with it. ... sometimes we read something and you recognize this ... you know what the guy’s doing

I’m reading a text written by Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) in 1615 called “Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina” (Drake, S. Discoveries and opinions of Galileo). I’m astonished with Galileo’s power of argumentation! He defends his scientific cause within the theological affairs and gives good reasons! I observed that he used in his text arguments of character such as quotations of St Augustine and other greats figures of the church….

As you can see, by learning labels, such as "arguments of character," or ethos, he now sees them in his readings and understands how Galileo is using them. Of course, we all use labels to give us an easy way to talk about something, such as the present perfect tense in grammar or thesis statement in organization. But now we have a better reason to use labels: they facilitate learning new concepts.


Culture affects your brain according to recent brain research at MIT (Live Science via Neuroanthropology).

Neuroscientists Trey Hedden and John Gabrieli of MIT's McGovern Institute for Brain Research asked Americans and East Asians to solve basic shape puzzles while in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner. They found that both groups could successfully complete the tasks, but American brains had to work harder at relative judgments, while East Asian brains found absolute judgments more challenging.

It's possible that those preferences can change. From the article,

Gabrieli said he is interested in testing whether brain patterns change if a person immigrates.

"There's a hint that six months in a culture already changes you," he said, referring to psychological, rather than neurological, research. "It suggests that there's a lot of flexibility."

Although such findings could lead people to stereotype others, as Gabriele said,

I like to think the more you understand different cultures, the better you understand their perspectives."

Neuroanthropology gave the following information on the research:

Trey Hedden, Sarah Ketay, Arthur Aron, Hazel Rose Markus, John D.E. Gabrieli (2008). Cultural Influences on Neural Substrates of Attentional Control. Psychological Science 19 (1), 12—17.

ABSTRACT—Behavioral research has shown that people from Western cultural contexts perform better on tasks emphasizing independent (absolute) dimensions than on tasks emphasizing interdependent (relative) dimensions, whereas the reverse is true for people from East Asian contexts. We assessed functional magnetic resonance imaging responses during performance of simple visuospatial tasks in which participants made absolute judgments (ignoring visual context) or relative judgments (taking visual context into account). In each group, activation in frontal and parietal brain regions known to be associated with attentional control was greater during culturally nonpreferred judgments than during culturally preferred judgments. Also, within each group, activation differences in these regions correlated strongly with scores on questionnaires measuring individual differences in culture-typical identity. Thus, the cultural background of an individual and the degree to which the individual endorses cultural values moderate activation in brain networks engaged during even simple visual and attentional tasks.

These findings may explain in part why what is so clear to me as a teacher is not so clear to my students.