Language and Thoughts – Shuqi

What interests me most is the saying in the lecture that “language is not thought itself, but a way of expressing thought”. He argued that babies and other mammals can also communicate without speech, and types of thinking go on without languages, such as music and images. These explanations make sense to me, but I start thinking about whether language affects people’s ways of thinking. If so, then how does this process happen? Are the bonds with language and thoughts strong or not?

When I looked up materials, it was unsurprising to find that a lot of linguists had argued this issue for a long time. One of the most prevalent hypothesis is called Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. It includes two kinds of relationships of language and thoughts. The first one is linguistic determinism which regards that language plays a decisive role in people’s thoughts. Whereas, such a point of view has been proved incorrect. It is obvious that people with different mother languages share a large number of common senses, emotions, and principles. Bilinguals, especially those who learned two languages as the first language, do not feel divisive themselves simply because of two languages they command. The second hypothesis of Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is linguistic relativity. It said that the structures of languages, such as grammars, semantics, and phonology, can influence people’s ways of thinking or behaviors profoundly and unconsciously. This hypothesis is still controversy in academia (at least according to the limited materials I found). In a classic experiment, people with mother languages emphasizing “east, south, north, and west” inclined to use these words to describe directions while people more familiar with “left and right” use these two words more frequently. Hence, this experiment might prove that the hypothesis makes sense to some extent.

However, it is still tricky to determine whether ways of thinking affect the evolution of language, or in reverse. It is the question “which came first, chicken or eggs?” Language is the product of human beings’ desires to express, communicate, and share. It is built upon specific cultural contexts. When there was a need, there came an according to word to satisfy it. It is a meaning-making system and a mediate agency to help people express. The routine way of humans to say or write something is that we come up with our thoughts, organize them in a logical way, choose appropriate words and grammars, and then express them. Therefore, if a thought doesn’t exist, certain words or expression will not develop along with it either.

Based on my experiences, I am more in favor of languages are just approaches to express thoughts. I am trilingual, Mandarin, Cantonese, and English, and I am learning French and know a little bit Japanese. In most occasions, when I learn a language as a foreign language, the first step is the translation. Only by translating unfamiliar words to familiar ones can I understand these meanings. Nevertheless, with the deepening of studying, it is easy to find that translation fails to work all the time. For instance, a joke being translated can be not funny at all. A beautiful poem being translated can lose its rhyme and aesthetic enjoyment. Inevitably, some latent meanings eclipse via the process of translation.

From my perspective, the majority of gaps among the translation of various languages result from social and cultural context. People growing in a specific social environment can be cultivated or socialized with a specific culture, and thusly develop specific thoughts, such as religions, nature, arts, and sports. In this sense, it is because of the differences among social environment that people have different thoughts. And based on thoughts, people create their own language systems.

To sum up, I doubt how language can affect people’s ways of thinking and need more experiments to underpin this point of view. My opinion might be conservative and traditional, which is that thoughts come from daily lives and culture instead of languages and drive the birth and development of languages.



Steven Pinker (2012),  Language and the Human Brain,

Cardiff (2013), Twelves Weeks to Learn Linguistics,

Whorf, B.L. (1956). “The Relation of Habitual Thought and Behavior to Language”. In Carroll, J.B. Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf.