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Theories of language and cognition

The video explores theories of language and cognition, discussing how thought and language interact. It covers universalism, Piaget's and Vygotsky's theories, and linguistic determinism. It highlights how language structure can influence thought and vice versa, using real-world examples. Created by Carole Yue.

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  • blobby green style avatar for user YehonathanShatz
    At , Yue mentions that the direction of a language's script may affect its speakers' visualization of an example sentence. That idea was really cool. :) But it was totally different from what I expected.
    The first factor I thought of was the morphosyntactic alignment of the language. (Basically, the order of the words.) "Girl pushes boy" vs. "Boy pushed by girl", for example.
    Can a language be conflated by its script? Speech has existed far before the invention of writing, many languages still have no script, and some languages are commonly written in multiple scripts, occasionally in opposite directions. For example, Turkish has been written in a modified version of right-to-left Arabic script before transitioning to left-to-write Latin script. And the earliest Greek inscriptions were written in boustrophedon (alternating left-and-right in each new line.)
    I guess my question is: how can the effects of scripts be separated from the structure of the language itself?
    Thanks a lot for any help. :)
    This video was awesome!
    (4 votes)
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    • leafers sapling style avatar for user ysobel.gallo
      Yeah, I reacted to this too, especially as someone who has dyslexia. My first language is english (reading left to right obviously) but when I imagined "girl pushes boy" the girl was standing decidedly to the right, and pushing the boy to the left. Now, does this say something about my language, or just that I'm dyslexic, and flip everything backwards and upside down?

      Your early Greek boustrophedon example reminded me of this: Ancient Nordic Runes are each distinct, so that no matter which way you rotate the rune (letter) it means the same sound. (as if p b d q all made the 'puh' sound). You can write them up, down, left or right, and as long as you're consistent, it's entirely readable.

      This isn't really an answer, just adding on to what you said. Language is fascinating to me. I LOVE thinking about this stuff.
      (6 votes)
  • leafers ultimate style avatar for user ff142
    Saying that if some cultures don't have words to refer to some things that means they don't know that these things exist is stupid. That would be like saying people who only speak 3 words only know these 3 things. But they actually may know more than just 3 things.
    For example I may not know the word to describe a specific shade of blue and the word to describe a slightly lighter shade of blue, but that doesn't mean I can't tell the difference, doesn't mean I don't recognize that these are two different shades of blue.
    I.e. Just because some cultures don't have words for some things, doesn't mean they can't recognize them and tell the difference between them.
    But language does INFLUENCE thought. But thought is not always governed by language, and language is not always representative of thought.
    (3 votes)
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    • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user ILoveToLearn
      I just recently read a study saying that those who communicate in different written languages understand each other just as well as those using any other written language. Understanding and communication across languages is equal.
      Untranslatables and such are commonplace stumbling blocks for language learners. However, just because there is no word for a certain feeling in our language doesn't exclude the existence of the feeling or the fact that such an emotion is real and can be felt.
      (1 vote)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Tajamul Bashir Najar
    Talking about the analogy of girl pushing a boy off the clif, what if you are multilangual and you draw it not in the order of you native language but some secondary language, does that mean my brain is somehow more influenced by that language or something else. Hope you got my point.
    (2 votes)
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  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Joshua
    how do babies just get the words in their head when they think a object they know is gone but still exists?
    (1 vote)
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    • leafers sapling style avatar for user Ronan Beltracchi
      They've heard the adults use the words before. But when a baby starts off, all of the words it hears are meaningless sounds. Piaget's theory is saying they start understanding and using words they have heard as they start to understand a concept. The baby probably has heard an adult say "all gone" before, but without any context, doesn't use it.
      (3 votes)
  • piceratops tree style avatar for user Sonam
    I know two foreign languages other than English. I speak one a lot better than the other. When I try to speak the language I am worse at, my "better" foreign language comes out. Not all the time, but sometimes it's all that comes to mind especially when I'm searching for a specific word. Is this because my brain groups English separately and my two foreign languages together? Is this common? Because it happens to my sister too, who knows the same two languages with about the same proficiency as me.
    (1 vote)
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  • piceratops seed style avatar for user Alexander.haines96
    I've got a question somewhat pertaining to this. My lecturer is going over Information Specific and General Domain and discussing modularity theory. He read us the sentence: "Who did Bill believe the rumor that Mary saw," and told us that we knew it sounded wrong but didn't know how. He said that is because it is first held in an information specific domain and then passed onto the working memory. I don't really understand the process here and why this kind of sentence confuses us. I hope I haven't rambled too much..

    Also a terrific video! really helped to clarify some things for me :) Thanks
    (1 vote)
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  • leaf blue style avatar for user wal.basheer
    How I can learn English? cauld any one Answeer me??
    (0 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user rijulamin
    This is a great video, thank you! Where would linguistic relativism fall on this scale?
    (1 vote)
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  • starky ultimate style avatar for user Jonathan To
    There's no such thing called: "The correct way" since these are just our limited recognition on the natural phenomenal and reality. They could all be right to a degree, or completely wrong.
    (1 vote)
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  • leaf green style avatar for user 福龍丸
    At , this is not a good example. The writing system (how a language is usually written) is not a feature of the language itself (see tips & thanks for more).
    (1 vote)
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Video transcript

If you've ever learned another language, then you know that some words don't translate exactly. For example, there's a language in New Guinea that only has two words for color-- mola, meaning "bright," and mili, meaning "dark." Now compare that to English. We have lots of words for color-- blue, green, teal, mauve, all that stuff. But does the fact that we have different words for color mean that we actually think about color differently? And your answer to that question places you on one position of the great language-thought debate. Which comes first? And we have different theories that we can place sort of on a spectrum. And on one end, we have something called universalism. This theory says that thought comes before language. So your thoughts dictate the language that develops. So going back to our New Guinean example, a universalist would say that that group of people only thinks in terms of bright and dark, and if they had concepts or ideas about other colors, then they would develop words for them in order to express those thoughts. So with universalism, we have the idea that thought determines language completely. And now here, at this point, we have the idea that thought influences language. Just a little bit gentler of a statement. And this is the idea that Piaget ascribed to. Piaget came up with a theory of cognitive development in children, and it was because of this and his observations of children that he believed that once children were able to think in a certain way, then they developed the language to describe those thoughts. So, for example, when children learn that objects continue to exist even though they can't see them, that's when they start to develop words like "gone" and "missing," "find." So their language development is influenced by their cognitive development and their newly-discovered ability to understand that objects exist, even when they can't see them anymore. So that's what Piaget thought. And now, a little further down, towards the more middle ground, we have Vygotsky. And Vygotsky thought that language and thought are independent, but they converge through development. So he didn't really say if language influenced thought or if thought influenced language. He just said they're both there, they're both independent, but eventually, you learn to use them at the same time. Because Vygotsky believed that children develop language through social interaction with adults who already know the language. And through that interaction, then they learn to connect their thoughts and the language that they eventually learn. OK, so now we're crossing over the middle ground into the world that believes language has an influence on thought. And we have a couple of positions here, and they both fall under the category of linguistic determinism. So these are called the weak and the strong hypotheses. And this isn't a value judgment on how good they are or how well-established they are. It just refers to how much influence they think language has on thought. So weak linguistic determinism says that language influences thought. It makes it easier or more common for us to think in certain ways depending on how our language is structured. So, for example, I'm going to read you a sentence, and I want you to draw it out or at least vividly imagine it. "The girl pushes the boy." OK, so however you drew that out or imagined it, if you drew it this way, with the girl on the left pushing the boy toward the right, than your native language probably reads from left to right, like English. If you drew the girl pushing the boy this way, with the girl on the right pushing toward the left, then your native language might be one that reads from right to left, like Hebrew. Now, it's not that you can't or didn't even draw it the other way. It's just that, depending on how your language is structured, it makes it more likely or easier for you to think about that action in a certain direction. Now, strong linguistic determinism takes a more extreme view and says that language determines thought completely. This is also called the Whorfian hypothesis, because the guy that came up with it, his name was Whorf. And he observed that there is a Native American tribe called the Hopi that don't have any grammatical tense in their language, and he thought that meant that they couldn't think about time in the same way. Later, people studying the language found that the Hopi have a different way of expressing past, present, and future. So we don't have an answer yet for which of these perspectives is the correct one, and people are still doing research to try to discover which one is the most accurate. But now you're aware of the main perspectives on the relationship between thought and language. And now, when you're learning a foreign language, you can think about how the language you're learning is influencing your thoughts, or vice-versa, how your thoughts are affecting your interpretation of the language.