Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Influence of Language

Recently a fellow writer named Beans, who has an awesome fashion blog commented on my behaviorism and language acquisition post. She mentioned a study that showed speakers of a language where genders are used are more likely to assign adjectives characteristic of that gender to the word.

When I first started studying Cognitive Science, and people would ask me what exactly Cognitive Science is, I would try to explain to them the Whorf Hypothesis. Now, originally I was going to write about the Whorf Hypothesis, however in my summer reading, I have come across something that has made me lose faith in it. I am still going to write about it, but I want to make sure I understand everything clearly enough to regurgitate it back to you guys.

The study Beans mentioned was conducted by Boroditsky and colleagues in 2003 (full citation at the end of the post), which followed on the tails of related studies. This research is supposedly evidence for the Whorf hypothesis. The first study conducted before the one mentioned was done by Sera and colleagues; in the study they took German, English, Spanish, and French speaking children and told them to pretend they were going to make a movie, and in the movie there were going to be objects that needed a voice. "Should it have a woman's or a man's voice in the movie?" the experimenter would ask the children. Native speakers of French and Spanish were more likely than German or English speakers to assign "gender" appropriate voice.

The second study, which was conducted by Boroditsky, was concerned with native Spanish and German speakers, although the test was conducted in English. In this study they asked to describe words from their native language in English.For example:

German (masculine): hard, heavy, jagged, useful
Spanish (feminine): little, lovely, shiny, tiny

German (feminine): beautiful, elegant, peaceful, slender
Spanish (masculine): big, dangerous, strong, sturdy

These results, reflect that attributes of a noun may influence how somebody thinks of an object. If these results are genuine, then it surely pints the German language in an interesting light.

Of course this could all be a mix-up of correlation and causation. While the Whorf hypothesis suggests that different languages are assumed to lead to different worldview, it may be possible that different cultures lead to different worldviews. The two results listed above could simply be anecdotal. Like I said, I will touch upon this topic again in the near future when I know more about it. I plan I re-reading all of these articles and following up on this soon. Tell me what you think!

Sera, M. D., C. A. Berge, and J. Castillo Pintado. "Grammatical and Conceptual Forces in The Attribution of Gender." Cognitive Development 9 (1994): 261-92. Print.