Problems with testing the ‘linguistic relativity’ position


I’m currently enrolled in a course that has focused mostly on the linguistic relativity position as it exists in contemporary cognitive psychology (and to some extent, anthropology).

In a very basic sense, the linguistic relativity position says that the language a person uses determines how he or she thinks about the world in the sense that users of distinct linguistic communities actually encode (i.e. represent) the world (or an aspect of it) quite differently.

There are a number of problems characteristically cited in contemporary discussions that I’d like to review.  I’ll present these simply as obstacles to an objective treatment of this view.

  • Significance of the way the instructions of a task are presented (especially relevant in bilingual and/or cross-linguistic experimental designs)
  • Domain vs. Structural-centered approaches
  • Cultural vs. Linguistic effects on cognition
  • Population representation: the samples of these studies rarely (if ever) can be said to be representative of the “linguistic community” that they are purportedly members of
  • Insufficient description and/or knowledge of cultural differences within a particular “linguistic community”

Another I’d like to add to the list is:

  • Conflation and/or imprecise use of the term “language” and/or “linguistic community”

The latter could be rephrased as “issues concerning the projectability (in the sense that Nelson Goodman attributes to that term) of ‘linguistic effects’

To put it in a much better way: even if an experiment (and its interpretation) purport and do a good job of showing a correspondence between a linguistic difference and a cognitive difference between two communities, its uncertain whether the conclusion(s) is projectible to “language in general”–or, to emulate Heidegger’s treatment of ‘being vs. Being’–Language.

So for instance, let’s say that users of Language A actually do differ in their experience of ‘space” (i.e. in their spatial cognition) as compared to users of Language B, does it then follow that

  1. “linguistic relativity is true” because it was shown that members of one linguistic community manifested distinct cognitive patterns as compared to the cognitive patterns manifest for members of another linguistic community….OR
  2. “linguistic relativity is true” because Language (i.e. “language itself”) determines the cognitive differences observed in different linguistic communities (that is, “different linguistic communities IN GENERAL” and not merely “differences among particular linguistic communities”)

Long story short is that depending on how a conclusion regarding the relationship between “language users” and “thought” (i.e. cognition of a nonlinguistic type) is projected, you’ll see very different takes on the “stakes” of the claim.  In the first case the cognitive difference is due to language-effects between one particular linguistic community and another particular linguistic community.  In the second case, the cognitive difference (i.e. the difference in thought) is taken to indicate a general effect of language itself, that is, Language…otherwise known as “the capacity for language”.

In a very short time observed cognitive differences between distinct linguistic communities becomes explainable via recourse to “the capacity for language”–a description in close proximity to something an advocate of Chomsky’s positions might say.  The irony is, of course, that proponents of the linguistic relativity position are OPPOSED to Chomsky’s program, to the whole edifice upon which the “universal grammar” conception is built.

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2 thoughts on “Problems with testing the ‘linguistic relativity’ position

  1. Hello..
    I have been through this article, and gathered some useful insights for my on-going M.Phil( linguistics) Thesis on Linguistic Relativity..
    My position can be summarized as
    “…..cognitive differences between distinct linguistic communities becomes explainable via recourse to “the capacity for language”–a description in close proximity to something an advocate of Chomsky’s positions might say.”

    Now , being a lecturer in linguistics and Applied linguistics i am to carryout some activities to find out relevance of linguistic relativity hypothesis with Pakistani Bilinguals. For this reason i have chosen interviews, both One-to-One and Focused Group interviews.
    I am facing some difficulty in structuring the activities around interviewing…
    I would be very grateful if you, or anyone , could give some useful input in this regard..

  2. actually, cognitive differences also exist among speakers of a same single language but who are from different ocations or have different family or education background. if such is the fact, the cognitive differences between distinct languages or dialects will be more striking (actually it is surely so on some given occasions).
    To test phenomena of this kind, the data of subjects’ age, education background, family background, financial situation and of even gender should be taken into account; and also how to design the experiment groups. more to add, what objects chosen to use as testing objects?

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