DE300: Investigating Psychology 3: Language, thought and culture

Chapter 4 Language, thought and culture runs to about 50 pages and is one of the optional chapters on the first TMA.

Introduction this is a very brief introduction to what is to follow in the chapter, touching on the concept of language, moving on to concepts and the idea that the speakers of different languages actually think differently and some difficulties in the use of language in experiments.

What is language? Aitchison (2008) points out that all normal human beings speak and that we have come to consider language as something that only humans do. However, Clarke (2006) found that gibbons in Thailand also employ a form of speech, albeit a somewhat simpler one than typical human languages. Clearly English has a great deal more vocabulary than the gibbon language but it also has a grammar which non-human languages don’t (Sampson, 2009). Aitchison (2008) identifies a range of characteristics which languages possess: 1) a vocal-auditory channel (although other channels can be used e.g. braille uses touch), 2) it is arbitrary i.e. the symbol used to represent an object does not resemble the object, 3) it has a semanticity i.e. the symbols used are generalisable e.g. we can refer to a specific dog or dogs in general, 4) spontaneous usage, 5) we employ turn-taking, 6) it has a duality thus the letters in dog only form the symbol for dog when combined, 7) human languages use cultural transmission i.e. we must learn languages whereas birds develop songs even when raised in isolation (not an experiment that would get ethical approval with humans!), 8) we can use displacement i.e. talk about things that aren’t happening here and now, finally 9) structure-dependence, 10) creativity and 11) we can mind-read are all considered human-only language features. Chomsky (1957) in particular stressed the structure-dependence (i.e. grammar) aspect and noted that it is easy to produce grammatically correct but nonsense sentences and also that many of our sentences are unique. The ability to anticipate intentions isn’t entirely limited to humans as Tomasello (2010) highlighted with his example of chimpanzees passing food to humans but noted that they don’t tend to form joint goals. Warneken (2006) demonstrated that toddlers and human-raised chimpanzees would co-operate in goal directed activities but the chimpanzees did not participate in social games without a goal in mind and moreover did not attempt to re-engage the humans who had withdrawn from the activities.

What are concepts made of? Introduces the idea of concepts as mental categories which have a series of attributes which are necessary and sufficient. In particular in this classical view, anything having those attributes is just as good an example of the category as any other thing with those attributes. Prototype theory takes Rosch’s (1973) idea that some exemplars are better examples of the concept than others e.g. an orangey-red isn’t as good an example of red as a “proper red” and similarly some fruits are better examples of fruits than others e.g. an apple is a better examplar than an olive. As always, the experiment had some limitations, in particular what does it mean to be a good example? Did that just mean to some participants how enjoyable it was rather than how typical it was? Also apple is a much more commonly used word (“A is for Apple”…) though Mervis (1976) ruled this out. Other typicality effects such as the estimation of the chance of a cross-species infection have been found (Rips, 1975) and Mervis (1980) found that children acquire vocabulary in order of typicality. Why this typicality effect exists was found to the more typical exemplars having more features of the category e.g. a robin is clearly a more typical bird than an ostrich and less typical exemplars overlap with other categories (e.g. bats aren’t great examples of mammals) (Rosch and Mervis, 1975). The best examples of a category are called prototypes and have all the required attributes but none of those from other categories. Kurbat’s 1994 study using images showed that typicality wasn’t confined to words and meanings and Kempton illustrated the cultural differences in prototypes using boots finding army boots worked in the UK and cowboy boots worked in the US. The knowledge approach Murphy’s knowledge approach (2004) contrasts with Roche’s prototype theory in considering that concepts are richer than simple dictionary definitions. Barsalou (1983) illustrated this by using ad hoc categories such as “ways to avoid being killed by the Mafia”. Stanfield and Zwann (2001) found that the concepts had other properties so that sentences with nails hammered into walls got a swifter response when the nail illustration was horizontal than when it was vertical i.e. the orientation of the nail was part of the concept of something being hammered into a wall. Hampton (1987) found that there was feature cancellation so that in asking for pets that are also birds, migration wasn’t mentioned as a property. Fodor (1998) noted that prototype theory implies that a prototypical pet fish should be cuddly as prototypical pets are. Conceptual combination was investigated by Keil (2000) who found that emergent features were associated with phrases but not to the underlying words e.g. arctic bicycles had spiked tyres yet neither arctic nor bicycle had. The knowledge vs typicality argument was found by Proffitt (2000) where tree experts estimated the likelihood of a disease being transmitted between species whereas Rips (1975) found in non-experts it was typicality that dominated in estimations of transmission of bird disease, as one would expect. Smith and Sloman (1994) found that knowledge was used when the participants had to give reasons for their choices.

Do speakers of different languages think differently? Introduces the idea that the language which we use to speak influences, but does not determine, what we can think. Language effects on colour discrimination considers whether the words that we have in our language for colours influences the colours we can see e.g. Russian has words for blue and light blue comparable to the English red and pink. Franklin (2005) considers that the colours are hard-wired whereas Goldstein (2009) considers that they are influenced by the language that we use. For example, Himba doesn’t have words for blue and green. As it turns out, Goldstein (2009) found that they could distinguish them but at the blue-purple and green-blue ranges they behaved like English children who didn’t know the names for the colours although there are issues around the environment in which they are raised: Himba are in a desert with limited colour range whilst the English children see all kinds of colours. Winawer (2007) found an advantage for Russian speakers in distinguishing light-blue from dark-blue (for which they have different words) over English speakers. Language effects on more abstract concepts considers whether this colour effect can be extended to more abstract concepts such as time. This goes into some detail on the experiments that Boroditsky (2001, 2011) conducted to examine Mandarin and English speakers way of thinking about time (vertically vs horizontally) and found that there are differences but this could be a function of experience rather than a function of language experience.

Does perception influence thought? Does language experience affect cognition or is it that language arises out of the perceptual experience? Barsalou (1999) went even further, suggesting that the cognition is accompanied by the experience e.g. if you think of the word “up” then the areas of your brain carrying out the actions are also activated I.e the cognition is embodied. Traditionally cognition is regarded as abstract i.e. disembodied (Kaye, 2010). This has transducers translating into a domain-specific modality (audio, visual, etc.) and then an amodal central processing function. There is evidence that the embodied (i.e. grounded in physical experience) is the way that it works (e.g. egg and chips vs chicken and egg). Glenberg and Kaschak (2002) used an ‘action-sentence compatibility effect’ to demonstrate this e.g. ‘Joe sang the cards to you’ doesn’t make sense whereas ‘You gave the earring to Susan’ does. Borghi et al. (2004) used an inside/outside metaphor e.g. fuelling the car (outside), driving the car (inside) using probe words such as tyre and steering wheel, it being easier when the word matched the location (i.e. fuelling the car going with tyre); this also worked with shapes e.g. flat palm went with smoothing the table cloth.

Reference: Kirkbride, S. and Smith, M. C. (2016). Language, thought and culture. In Ness, H., Kaye, H. and Stenner, P. (2016). Investigating Psychology 3. Milton Keynes: The Open University.

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