Post 3: Summary and Conclusions on Linguistic Relativity

As I conclude my research, I have come to realize that the topic of linguistic relativity is immensely huge. From all of the different languages that can be studied to all of the different aspects of cognition that can be tested, there is so much out there that my initial proposition evaluating all of the current research on linguistic relativity was deemed impossible pretty early on. But that didn’t stop me from trying to come to my own consensus based on various books that argued both for and against linguistic relativity and many journal articles.

I have come to the conclusion that there are two different variations of the linguistic relativity hypothesis that greatly affect whether they are supported or not. One hypothesis is that a native language can affect the non-language aspects of cognition and thought. I found that this hypothesis can be supported to a marginal degree in areas of cognition such as color perception, expressing spatial relations, and remembering blame in different ways. However in all of these areas the experiments are usually carefully designed to elicit responses in favor of linguistic relativity and changing the procedure can completely change the outcome, as shown when researchers tried to repeat an experiment by Lera Boroditsky on conceptions of time that I mentioned in my last post. These experiments are also carried out in carefully controlled lab situations and produce differences that are just barely statistically significant that are very hard to relate to real life. This brings me to the second definition of linguistic relativity, the one that is so attractive that we all want to believe, that language can influence our world views. This hypothesis however is difficult to find evidence for. The small differences found in support of the first version of the hypothesis can hardly be extrapolated to support the second version of the hypothesis. For example, just because Russian speakers can perceive the difference between two shades of blue a couple hundred milliseconds better than English speakers does not mean they perceive the world any different than we do.

Another interesting way to think about linguistic relativity is whether it matters if language has an influence at all. English and other Western language speakers seem to want to prove that they have an interest in “obscure” cultures to correct for the longstanding bias against other cultures that existed for a long time. Maybe it is better to just accept the universality of human thought while acknowledging that they have different ways of expressing themselves.

The debate over linguistic relativity is not even close to being over yet. When I started my research, I inserted myself into a world of conflicting information, different interpretations and even different definitions of the theory itself. For now, I have come to the conclusion that language does have a marginal impact on cognitive thought, but would not go all the way to say that it affects how we think and see the world. I don’t think this question will ever be able to be answered until we determine the mechanisms of the brain that account for the relationships between language, thought, cognition, and perception.

To conclude my research, I made an informational brochure to summarize my findings and condense them into an easily readable format: Linguistic Relativity Brochure


  1. krhopkins says:

    Hi Erica! Your findings on linguistic relativity are fascinating! I always thought of language as a biproduct of culture rather than a factor that influences various culture norms. The specific examples you discuss are particularly thought provoking. When you mentioned that the Chinese do not have general terminology for discussing hypotheticality I was surprised that grammar could affect how easily they express conditional statements. Over the summer when I was vacationing in Costa Rica, I talked to a taxi driver about differences between learning Spanish and English as a second language. He mentioned that in English we do not have gender assignments for common nouns such as “dog” versus “perra or perro.” It was interesting to hear the point of view of someone who grew up speaking Spanish and is trying to learn more English. I think the gendered nouns in Spanish could influence the existing gender roles in Hispanic culture. However, this generalization may not apply across the board considering most cultures do not speak a single language but speak multiple languages all influenced by the culture/region. I’d love to discuss your findings further in person. Let’s grab coffee sometime!