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To be or not to be: relativity in the language class

January 25, 2017 by Nora Nagy

Have you seen the film Arrival (directed by Villenevuve, 2016)? Then you may share some of our musings today. Learning languages can save the world, and knowing languages deeply can make you more important than any superhero. The two main characters in Arrival, a linguist and a physicist, are central in resolving an international and extraterrestrial conflict, and they rely on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (1956) to find a solution to the mysterious appearance of alien creatures on Earth. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is also known as the hypothesis of linguistic relativity.

What is this hypothesis? How can it inform your language classes? How can it inform your reading classes?

What is the main idea of the hypothesis?

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis introduces an amazing idea into the fields of psychology, psycholinguistics, cognitive linguistics, and bilingual studies. As we learn from Aneta Pavlenko (2005), it suggests that users of different grammar systems will make different observations and evaluations of similar acts, and will consequently arrive at a different view of the world (Whorf, 1956). The original understanding of these differences was based on the different grammatical and structural systems of languages. These questions led researchers to investigate the connection between language and thought.

Can the language you speak and a second language you learn to speak influence your understanding of the world? Can they influence how you feel, how you see, and how you tell stories?

It is important not to confuse linguistic relativity with linguistic determinism. Linguistic determinism assumes that the language you use defines and 'determines' the way you think. However, as we learn from Pavlenko (2005), instead of this oversimplified approach, contemporary linguists interpret and study linguistic relativity in more complex ways, examining how different languages influence different conceptual areas in our thinking.

Have you ever found it difficult to find the exact translation of a word, or been at a loss to explain the nuance of a particular shade of colour that you have a name for in your language? Have you ever experienced difficulty in understanding reference to gender and age in a different language? How about talking to someone who learnt the language in a different sociocultural setting?

John Lucy (1996) explored how language influences behaviour and identified three levels of interactions. The first level is semiotic ('the general impact of the use of any natural language', the second level is structural (lexical and morphosyntactic categories), and the third level is functional (the influence of particular ways of speaking) (Pavlenko, 2005, p. 434).

And let's not forget about the relationship between language and culture. When we study a language, do we use it as a way to explore a different culture, or do we learn about that culture in order to understand the language we are learning? This field is vastly researched, especially by Claire Kramsch, if you are more interested in this topic, her seminal book  Language and Culture (1998) is a good place to start. And Living Language: An Introduction to Linguistic Anthropology by Laura Ahearn (2012) gives a good overview of contemporary research in this field.

How can these ideas inform your language classes?

It is exciting to think about linguistic differences. Your students may be bilingual or multilingual, and they can give huge insights into cultural and linguistic differences. If there are no bilingual or multilingual students in your classes, you can simply compare some aspects of your first language and English.

When your students start noticing linguistic differences and start seeing how they can indicate cultural differences, they start developing a deeper consciousness of the language they are learning. This is how, slowly, but surely you can plant the seeds of critical thinking and language awareness in them.

Here are some research areas which can inform your classroom discussions and projects.

A popular theme in the film Arrival is the concept of time. As Pavlenko (2005) reminds us, it is just one of the themes to explore in cross-linguistic studies. What other areas can we investigate?

COLOUR. Do you have exactly the same words to describe colours in English and in your first language? Do colours have the same meanings in the two languages?

SPACE. A famous research topic is the understanding of our position in relation to the world. How do you talk about the space around you? Do you know where north, south, east, and west are? Are there any differences in the use of prepositions in your language and in English? How about remembering different directions in different languages?

TIME. Where do you point if you want to visualise the past? Do you point behind you? There are alterations in describing the passing of time in different languages. In English, you go back in time, and you look ahead into the future. Is this the same in your language? Lera Boroditsky (2001) was among the first to study this concept of time and space.

There are many other areas that are worth talking about. For example, emotions are often described differently in different languages, and the way we tell stories might differ. Also, the way we refer to people with pronouns (referring to different numbers and gender) can be confusing in English compared to other languages. Plus there are numerous interesting semantic differences. For example, in many languages, there are two different words to convey the two different meanings of the verb 'know' in English. (I know the answer. / I know (am acquainted with) this person.)

How can these ideas inform your reading classes?

As we see it, there are two important ways relative linguistic research can inform our approaches to reading classes. First of all, the way you read and the types of sentences you see in an English text might come as a surprise if you rely only on your first language due to the narrative conventions in different languages. A lot of students find it hard to accept that in English we often write in shorter sentences, and paragraphs are very important. The direction of your reading can be a challenge. If your students read from left to right, it is easier to read in English. However, they can find it more demanding to read in this direction if they read right to left in their mother tongue so give them time and enough support.

Also, reading more and more in English, and reading stories in English can give you more support with understanding how a different language works. The way actions, people, and places are described, time and space are conceptualized, emotions and opinions are interpreted and expressed are examples of different aspects of linguistic relativity. The more contextualized occurrences of the use of language your students meet, the more likely it is that they can reflect and appreciate the differences of languages.

Ask your students to look for surprising or unusual collocations, descriptions, and idioms. Some of them might be examples of a different way of thinking about the world because of linguistic or sociocultural reasons.


Ahearn, L. (2012.) Living Language: An Introduction to Linguistic Anthropology. New York: Wiley-Blackwell.

Boroditsky, L. Does Language Shape Thought?: Mandarin and English Speakers’ Conceptions of Time. Cognitive Psychology 43. pp. 1-22. (2001).

Kramsch, C. J. (1998). Language and culture. Oxford, OX: Oxford University Press.

Pavlenko, A. Bilingualism and Thought. In. Kroll, Judith F. & de Groot, Annette M. B. (Eds.). (2005). Handbook of bilingualism: Psycholinguistic approaches. (pp. 433-453). New York, NY, US: Oxford University Press.

Whorf, B. L., & Carroll, J. B. (1956). Language, thought, and reality: Selected writings. Cambridge, Mass.: Technology Press of Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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