Language and cognition tend to interact in a dual and cyclical relationship, a theory known overall as linguistic relativity.
What one thinks becomes what one communicates and what one communicates can lead to new thoughts. Several different theories aim to discuss the relationship between cognition and language, and each will be discussed in this chapter.
The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis states that the grammatical structure of a person’s language influences the way he or she perceives the world. The hypothesis has been widely abandoned by linguists as it has found at best minimal experimental support, and it does not hold much merit in psychology. For instance, studies have not shown that speakers of languages lacking a subjunctive mood (such as Chinese) experience difficulty with theoretical problems. The weaker version of this theory does have some merit, however. For example, different words mean different things in different languages; not every word in every language has an exact one-to-one translation in a different language. Because of these small but significant differences, using the wrong word within a particular language (because you believe it to mean something else) can have dire consequences.
The canonical example of studying linguistic relativity is in the area of color naming. Sapir and Whorf, as believers in linguistic relativity, would believe that people whose languages partition the color spectrum along different lines perceive colors in a different way. However, recent research has supported the idea that human color perception is governed more by biological and physical rather than linguistic constraints, regardless of how many color words a language has.
According to the theory that drives cognitive-behavioral therapy, the way a person thinks has a huge impact on what she or he says and does. Founded by Aaron T. Beck, this school of thought discusses the interplay among emotion, behavior, language, and thought. Since internal dialogue is a form of language, the way we speak to ourselves can influence our daily lives. Problems with our internal dialogue, known as cognitive distortions, can lead to negative behaviors or serious emotional problems.
The field of behavioral economics studies the effect of psychological and cognitive factors on individuals’ behavior in an economic context. In this field (and others), researchers have shown that the more vividly an event is described, the more likely people will believe it is true. Thus, people will draw different conclusions and make different choices about a situation based on the language used to describe that situation.
The following timeline gives an overview of the ages at which children generally acquire language:
– 4–6 months: Babbling using all sounds.
– 6–9 months: Babbling becomes more focused—narrowing of sounds.
– 10–12 months: First words develop.
– 18–24 months: Children begin using two-word phrases (example: “Me up” or “Get milk”).
– 2–3 years: Children begin using three-word phrases in the correct order with inflection.
– 4–5 years: Children start speaking with nearly complete syntax.
– 5–7 years: Children begin using and understanding more complex language.
– 9 years and older: Children understand almost all forms of language.
As children assign meaning to words, they often make mistakes of overextension. Overextension is when a categorical definition is applied to a larger group than it’s meant to describe, usually for reasons of appearance – for example, a child saying “kitty” to describe a lion.
In language acquisition, there is a hypothesis that a “critical period,” or a time when it is optimal to learn a language, exists in children. Part of this hypothesis is that if a child is not exposed to a language in the early years of life, he or she will never have full intuitive command of a first language.
A key case study that supports the critical-period hypothesis is the study of Genie. Genie was a “feral child,” a young girl born in 1957 who, due to horrible abuse and neglect, never learned a language. She never managed to fully acquire verbal language as a result.
MCAT Official Prep (AAMC)
Practice Exam 2 P/S Section Question 9
• Children generally acquire language starting at four months (babbling sounds) and continuing to the age of nine (understanding almost all forms of language).
• In language acquisition, there is a hypothesis that a “critical period,” or a time when it is optimal to learn a language, exists in children. If a child is not exposed to a language in the early years of life, he or she will never have full intuitive command of a first language.
• The theory of linguistic relativity states that the structure of a language influences the way its speakers conceptualize the world.
• The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis discusses the grammatical structure of a particular language and how it influences its speakers’ perceptions of the world.
• Cognitive-behavioral theory claims that what people think impacts what they say and do.
• According to behavioral economics, people are more likely to believe an event is true if it is described vividly.
cognitive distortion: exaggerated and irrational thoughts, believed to perpetuate psychological disorders
cognition: refers to a wide range of internal mental activities, such as analyzing information, generating ideas, and problem-solving
Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: a theory that posits that the grammatical structure of a person’s language influences the way he or she perceives the world
cognitive behavioral therapy: is a psycho-social intervention that aims to improve mental health
behavioral economics: the study of psychology as it relates to the economic decision-making processes of individuals and institutions
linguistic relativity: a principle claiming that the structure of a language affects its speakers’ world view or cognition
overextension: the application of a categorical definition to subjects outside of the actual category, usually because they look similar