Does Language Shape Thought? Different Manifestations of the Idea of Linguistic Relativity (I)

Does the language we speak influence or even shape the way we think? Last December, there was an interesting debate over at The Economist website with Lera Boroditsky defending the motion, and Language Log’s Mark Liberman against the motion (who IMO, both did a very good job).
The result of the online poll was quite clear: 78% agreed with the motion, while 22% disagreed.

There are, however, three main problems with this way of framing the question: First, it’s not really clear what ‘language’ really is, second, the same goes for “thought”, and third, there are many many ways of how “influencing” and “shaping” something can be conceptualized.
In this post I want to focus on the third problem and present a very useful classification system for hypotheses about linguistic relativity outlined in an article by Phillip Wolff and Kevin J. Holmes, which was published in the current issue Wiley Interdisciplinary Review: Cognitive Science.

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Imitation and Social Cognition (III): Man’s best friend

In my two previous posts (here and here) about imitation and social cognition I wrote about experiments which showed that
1)  young children tend to imitate both the necessary as well as the unnecessary actions when shown how to get at a reward, whereas wild chimpanzees only imitate the necessary actions.
And that
2) both 14-month old human infants as well as enculturated, human raised-chimpanzees tend to ‘imitate rationally.’ That is, they tend to be able to differentiate whether an agent chose a specific way of performing an action intentionally, or whether the agent was forced to performing the action in this specific manner by some constraint.
ResearchBlogging.orgIt can be argued that these experiments demonstrate that human infants and young children show an early sensitivity to the communicative intentions of others. That is, they seem to be able to infer that a demonstrator’s specific (and ‘odd’ ) actions are somehow relevant, because she chose this specific manner freely (see also these two extremely interesting posts by the philosopher Pierre Jacob, on which my own post is partly based)

The fact that human-raised chimpanzees also show this sensitivity suggests that enculturation plays an important part in this process.
In a very interesting study, Range et al. (2007) used an experimental setup similar to that of Gergely et al. (2002) (which i described in my second post, here) to test whether other ‘enculturated’ and domesticated animals show the same kind of sensitivity: dogs.

Imitation and Social Cognition in Humans and Chimpanzees (II): Rational Imitation in Human Infants and Human-Raised Chimps

In my last post I wrote about two experiments on imitation in young children and chimpanzees by Lyons et al. (2005) and Horner & Whiten (2005).  Their results suggested that young children tend to copy both the ‘necessary’ and the ‘unnecessary’ parts of a demonstrator’s action who shows them how to get a reward out of a puzzle box, whereas chimps only copy the ones necessary to get the reward.

ResearchBlogging.orgOne important question raised by these experiments was whether these results can only be applied to wild chimpanzees or whether they also hold for enculturated, human-raised chimps. This is an important question because it is possible that chimpanzees raised in these kinds of richly interactive contexts show more sensitivity to human intentionality.

Buttelman et al. (2007) tested just that. They used the “rational imitation” paradigm, which features two conditions

a) the subjects are shown an action in which the specific manner of the action is not purposive and intentional but results from the demonstrator being occupied with something else. For example, he may be carrying something so that he has to use his foot to turn on a light (often called the Hands Occupied Condition).

b) the subjects are shown an action in which the demonstrator chooses a specific manner of doing something on purpose. For example he may have his hands free but still choosto turn on the light with his foot (Hands Free Condition).

taken from Call & Tomasello 2008

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Imitation and Social Cognition in Humans and Chimpanzees (I): Imitation, Overimitation, and Conformity

ResearchBlogging.org

Imitation is often seen as one of the crucial foundations of culture because it is the basis of  social learning and social transmission. Only by imitating others and learning from them did human culture become cumulative, allowing humans to build and improve on the knowledge of previous generations. Thus, it may be one of the key cognitive specializations that sparked the success of the human evolutionary story:

Much of the success of our species rests on our ability to learn from others’ actions. From the simplest preverbal communication to the most complex adult expertise, a remarkable proportion of our abilities are learned by imitating those around us. Imitation is a critical part of what makes us cognitively human and generally constitutes a significant advantage over our primate relatives (Lyons et al. 2007: 19751).

Indeed, there have been some interesting experiments suggesting that the human capacity -and, above all, motivation – for imitation is an important characteristic that separates us from the other great apes.

In a series of intriguing experiments by Victoria Horner and Andrew Whiten from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and Derek Lyons and his colleagues from Yale University,  young wild-born chimpanzees and Children aged 3 to 4 were shown how to get a little toy turtle/ a reward out of a puzzle box. In the first condition of the experiment the puzzle box was transparent, whereas in the second condition the puzzle box was opaque.

And here’s the catch: both chimpanzees and children were not shown the ‘right’ or ‘simple’  solution to how to get the reward but one that was actually more complicated and involved unnecessary steps.

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Michael Tomasello – Why We Cooperate

cross-posted at Shared Symbolic Storage

In this post I will offer a short overview of some aspects of Michael

Tomasello’s latest book „Why We Cooperate,” which is based on his 2008 Tanner Lectures on Human Values.

Tomasello deals with the question how cooperative behaviour and its socio-cognitive foundations arise both in development and during the evolution of the human species. His short text is accompanied by four short commentaries by leading scholars who contributed in important ways to the theory of the evolution and ontogenetic development Tomasello espouses here. These are: psychologist Carol S. Dweck, anthropologist Joan B. Silk, philosopher Brian Skyrms and developmental psychologist Elizabeth Spelke.

In this post I only want to briefly summarize some of the key tenets of Tomasello’s book to offer an introduction to his work on cooperation, whose main impetus it is to have a closer look at the relatively simple and primal cooperative and interactive social behaviour that builds the foundation of human culture.

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The 20th Anniversary of Steven Pinker & Paul Bloom: Natural Language and Natural Selection (1990)

The day before yesterday Wintz mentioned two important birthdays in the field of language evolution (see here): First, Babel’s Dawn turned four, and second, as both Edmund Blair Bolles and Wintz pointed out, Steven Pinker‘s and Paul Bloom‘s seminal paper “Natural Language and Natural Selection” (preprint can be found here) has its 20th anniversary.
Wintz wrote that he planned on writing
“a post on Pinker and Bloom’s original paper, and how the field has developed over these last twenty years, at some point in the next couple of weeks,”
and I thought I’d also offer a short perspective on the paper, by reposting an slightly edited post I wrote on the paper in 2008 (yes I know, I do a lot of reposting of old material, but I’m planning on writing more new stuff as well, I promise 😉 ).
So here we go:

Language, Thought, and Space (V): Comparing Different Species

ResearchBlogging.org As I’ve talked about in my last posts (see I, II, III, and IV) different cultures employ different coordinate systems or Frames of References (FoR) when talking about space.  FoRs

“serve to specify the directional relationships between objects in space, in reference to a shared referential anchor” (Haun et al. 2006: 17568)

As shown in my last post these linguistic differences seem to reflect certain cognitive differences:

Whether speakers mainly use a relative, ego-based FoR, a cardinal-direction/or landmark-based absolute FoR, or an object-based, intrinsic based FoR, also influences how they solve and conceptualise spatial tasks.

In my last post I also posed the question whether there is a cognitive “default setting” that we and the other great apes inherited from our last common ancestor that is only later overridden by cultural factors. The  crucial question then is which Frame of Reference might be the default one.

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Language, Thought, and Space (IV): Comparing Different Cultures

In my last post on the relationship between language, thought and (thinking and talking about) space I wrote that one of the most interesting, but also one of the most difficult questions is to what extent linguistic differences in talking about space reflect conceptual and perceptual differences.
Researchers at the Max-Planck-Institute for Psycholinguistics (Nijmegen, Netherlands) and at the Max-Planck-Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (Leipzig, Germany) have done very interesting experiments that shed light on this question
As I mentioned in a previous posts (see here) work done by Stephen Levinson and others on how different cultures talk about and conceptualize space has shown that not all of them employ a bodily, egocentric frame of reference or coordinate system as their dominant organizing principle for their experiences and thoughts. Speakers of “several indigenous languages of Australia, Papua New Guinea, Mexico, Nepal, and south West Africa,” in contrast, organize the axes of their dominant coordinate system by absolute principles such as fixed landmarks (e.g. uphill vs. downhill) or cardinal directions (e.g. move the chair to the north). In addition, there are also langouages that primarily use “intrinsic,” object-centred Frames of Reference, such as in “The dog is at the front of the library.”
Differences between Relative and Absolute Speakers in Non-linguistic Spatial Tasks
In a set of clever experiments Levinson and his colleagues have also shown that speakers of relative and absolute languages differ in how they solve non-linguistic spatial tasks.

Language, Thought and Space (III): Frames of Reference in Language and Cognition

In the second chapter of his 2003 book Space in Language and Cognition: Explorations in Cognitive Diversity, Stephen Levinson discusses a concept that has been crucial to discussions of space and ‘perspectivation’ in language: frames of reference. (see e.g. these posts on my blog Shared Symbolic Storage) The term as it is used today was coined by Gestalt theorists of perception in the 1920s and was used to signify the steady and constant background against which other objects could be made out and identified. It can be defined as
“‘a unit or organization of units that collectively serve to identify a coordinate system with respect to which certain properties of objects, including the phenomenal self, are gauged’ (Rock 1992: 404, emphasis in Levinson 2003: 24).

Language, Thought, and Space (II): Universals and Variation

Spatial orientation is crucial when we try to navigate the world around us. It is a fundamental domain of human experience and depends on a wide array of cognitive capacities and integrated neural subsystems. What is most important for spatial cognition however, are the frames of references we use to locate and classify ourselves, others, objects, and events.

Often, we define a landmark (say ourselves, or a tree, or the telly) and then define an object’s location in relation to this landmark (the mouse is to my right, the bike lies left of the tree, my keys have fallen behind the telly). But as it turns out, many languages are not able to express a coordinate system with the meaning of the English expression “left of.” Instead, they employ a compass-like system of orientation.

They do not use a relative frame of reference, like in the English “the cat is behind the truck” but instead use an absolute frame of reference that can be illustrated in English by sentences such as “the cat is north of the truck.” (Levinson 2003: 3). This may seem exotic for us, but for many languages it is the dominant – although often not the only – way of locating things in space.

What cognitive consequences follow from this?

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