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Does Language Shape Thought?: Mandarin and English Speakers' Conceptions of Time
Classical theories of the relation between language and thought in human development were mostly accounted by Piaget and Vygotsky in the early 1900s (Weiskrantz, 1988). They both agreed that thought does not originate in language even though their views were often presented as mutually contradictory. Piaget (1926) argued that thought has its origins in a 'logic of action' which forms behavioural foundation for the mental operations in infancy that will emerge in later life. He defined thinking as 'the ability to reflect upon stored experience' and that precursors of thought can be observed in the baby's sensori-motor activities long before she utters her first words. Vygotsky (1962) however had social approach to intellectual development. He considered the social foundations of language and thought, as well as sensori-motor precursors to be observable in infancy. Whorf, on the other hand had a strong view that thought and action are entirely determined by language. He proposed that if languages differ, their speakers should also differ in perceiving the world. Boroditsky (2001) in her paper discussed Whorfian view, as well as studies conducted by Heider (1972), Rosch (1975, 1978), Slobin (1987, 1996), and Hunt and Agnoli (1991).
The studies briefly mentioned in the paper were supporting the idea that language shapes thought. Slobin (1987, 1996) in his studies proposed that language may influence thought during 'thinking for speaking', and Agnoli (1991) showed the evidence that language may influence the thought by making habitual distinctions more fluent. Boroditsky's article reviewed a history of studies about languages, how language we speak shapes the way we understand the world, how people who speak different languages think about the world differently and how learning a new language changes the way we think. Researchers conducted three studies to demonstrate the role of language in shaping habitual thought. They hypothesized that using spatial language to talk about time have short-term implications for on-line processing, and that using spatial language to talk about time have long-term implications and they examined whether different ways of talking about time lead to different ways of thinking about it. In English front/back terms are used to talk about time, but in Mandarin speakers also use vertical metaphors, like up/down. Three experiments were designed to test whether using spatial metaphors to talk about time can have both immediate and long-term implications for how people think about time.
Graduate and undergraduate students from Stanford University participated in the studies, in a first experiment; twenty-six native English speakers and 20 native Mandarin speakers. The task was to answer spatial prime questions followed by questions about time. Spatial scenarios accompanied by a sentence description were primes, either horizontal or vertical and targets were statements about time: either before/after or earlier/later (e.g., 'March comes before April'; 'March comes earlier than April'). All participants were tested in English. For each question presented on a computer screen, participants had to response TRUE or FALSE as quickly as possible. As predicted, English and Mandarin speakers answered spatiotemporal before/after questions faster after horizontal primes than after vertical primes, however when answering questions phrased in purely temporal earlier/later terms, Mandarin speakers were faster after vertical primes than after horizontal primes. It appeared that habits in language encourage habits in thought and that they can operate regardless of the language that one is currently thinking for.
Twenty five Mandarin-English bilinguals (with varying degrees of experience with Mandarin and English) participated in a second experiment. Participants had to again answer spatial priming questions followed by questions about time, however in this experiment all targets were earlier/later statements about time, because the critical measure was the amount of vertical bias in response to the earlier/later targets. Results showed that the bias to think about time vertically was greater for Mandarin speakers who started learning English later in life. The tendency to think about time vertically was related to the length of pure Mandarin acquisition, before any English was learnt, but not the length of English experience.
In the third experiment seventy all native English speakers participated in a study. They were told they would learn a new way to think about time. The system used applied statements like above/below and higher than/lower than. Participants had to figure out how the system worked and were then trained on questions about certain events, where events closer to the past were said to be 'above' or 'higher than' and events closer to the future were said to be 'below' or 'lower than'. After that they went on to complete the experiment number one. Trained English speakers answered targets faster than native Mandarin speakers. It confirmed the hypotheses that differences in talking lead to differences in thinking.
Boroditsky seems to be really fascinated about how people perceive time. She calls it a phenomenon (Boroditsky, 2001) in which we observe the appearance and disappearance of objects and events, and is interested in spatial terms imported to talk. Across cultures people use one-dimensional, directional terms to talk about time (Clark, 1973; Traugott, 1978), Boroditsky however is concerned about aspects of our concept of time that are not observable in the world, e.g., if time moves horizontally or vertically, forward or back, left or right, or up and down. Gentner et al. (2002) in his paper on time metaphors investigates the psychological status of these metaphors by asking subjects to carry out temporal inferences stated in terms of spatial metaphors. They found that subjects were slowed in their processing when the assertions shifted from one spatial metaphoric system to the other. The results suggest that our representation of time is structured in part by on-line structural analogies with the more concrete and experiential domain of space. According to Birth (2004) 'time is a fundamental dimension of human experience, but its study presents special challenges, including the methodological problems of how to get people to talk about time and how to recognize discourse and actions that reveal cultural conceptions of time'. The ethnographic literature on time is unfortunately quite modest, despite the importance of time in social and cultural theory (Munn, 1992).
Contrary to literature on time, research on language is one of the main topics in a field of psychology, linguistics, cognitive science, educational inquiry, neuroscience, ethnography, sociolinguistics, sociology and semiotics (Ellis, 2009). There are different versions of the thesis that natural language is involved in human thinking. There is a view that language is conceptually necessary for thought (endorsed by many philosophers) and the view that language is the medium of all human conceptual thinking (endorsed by many philosophers and social scientists) (Carruthers, 2002). Carruthers argues that language is required for certain kinds of thought; not that language is involved in or is the representational vehicle of those thoughts. He also proposes, that thought is conceptually independent of natural language, and that thoughts of many types can actually occur in the absence of language. This leaves open the possibility that some types of thought might involve language, given the way in which human cognition is structured. The past decade has seen a host of ingenious demonstrations confirming that language indeed plays a causal role in shaping cognition. Studies have shown that changing how people talk changes how they think (Boroditsky, 2011).
A good way to find out if it's true is to study bilinguals, what Boroditsky did in this paper. Studies have shown that bilinguals change how they see the world depending on which language they are speaking (Boroditsky, 2011). It also changes their personality. In a study by Chen and Bond (2010) bilinguals exhibited different patterns of personality, each associated with one of their two languages and the ethnicity of their interlocutors. They suggested that use of a second language accesses the perceived cultural norms of the group most associated with that language. The findings demonstrated that crosslanguage differences do really exist on some personality dimensions.
Boroditsky (2009) is confident that people who speak different languages do indeed think differently and that even twist of grammar can profoundly affect how we see the world and how we describe events. Bilingualism exerts its effect on literacy acquisition through a variety of factors and circumstances that must be accounted for individually in understanding how people become literate in their two languages and how acquiring abstract concepts requires experience with language.