Thursday, April 20, 2017

Departures and Arrivals: Linguistic Relativity

Learning By Doing

How many words do you have in your vocabulary for that white stuff that falls from the sky when the weather turns cold? How does your list of words compare to somebody who grew up in the desert?


In the movie, Arrival (2016), we are introduced to Dr. Louise Banks, who is an expert in linguistics. When an alien ship touches down in Montana, she is called upon by her government to help translate the alien language. During the time she spends with the heptapods (i.e., the aliens), Dr. Banks introduces the audience to an idea from linguistics that helps explain what is happening. Here is her dialog with her collaborator, Ian Donnelly. 

Dr. Louise Banks: If you immerse yourself into a foreign language, then you can actually rewire your brain.
Ian Donnelly: Yeah, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. It's the theory that the language you speak determines how you think and...
Dr. Louise Banks: Yeah, it affects how you see everything.

First of all, I am impressed that Ian is familiar with the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis because his character is a physicist by training. I guess he must have taken a linguistic or pyschology course just for fun. Second, I didn't realize it, but there are a bunch of misconceptions swirling around the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

"This is pure snow! It's everywhere!" –Charles De Mar

The first misconception I ran into was the name: Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. According to some references [1], Benjamin Lee Whorf was a student of Edward Sapir. However, they never co-authored a paper espousing "the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis," nor did they even formulate it as a testable hypothesis. It was only later that the field of linguistics gave it a name and a solid formulation. Hmm. This "hypothesis" is not off to a great start.

The second misconception is my favorite. According to the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis (i.e., linguistic relatively)words that have many variations are important to that culture. For example, Eskimos have 50 different words for the word "snow." Given where they live, snow figures prominently into their daily lives. Ergo, they have lots of ways to refer to snow, right? They must! While it's true that there are lots of words for snow, it turns out that our language also has a lot of words for snow (e.g., snow, sleet, slush, powder, freezing rain, drifting snow, etc.). So it is difficult to establish a baseline as to what counts as "a lot of words" and what is not. 

Finally, the original statement of the hypothesis was tempered a bit. So now there are two formulations. The first is the strong version which stipulates that that language determines our thoughts. In other words, if I had grown up speaking German, my thought patterns would be different from those that I enjoy as an English speaker. Who knows what I could have achieved if I spoke a different language! If that version seems a bit heavy-handed, there is also the weak version which says that language influences our thoughts.

The S.T.E.M. Connection 

There is at least some evidence for the weak version of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. Consider, for example, the well documented difference in mathematical achievement between Chinese and American students. Where does this advantage come from? One possible explanation is the differences in the way numbers are represented in Chinese and English [2]. In both languages, the digits between one and nine have an arbitrary mapping between the numeric concept (e.g., 9) and the spoken word (Jiǔ vs. nine). So we wouldn't expect any advantages either way for counting small numbers. 

But after ten, things start to get interesting. In Chinese, the way to represent numbers between 11-20 is to prefix the number with "ten." So the Chinese word for "11" can be translated as "ten one." In English, however, the arbitrary naming convention continues because the word "eleven" does not give any information about its place value. The hypothesis, then, is that Chinese students will have an easier time learning about place value than English-speaking students. Place value becomes extremely important, for example, when learning to "borrow" during multi-column subtraction.

Linguistic relativity is a fascinating topic, and I am glad that an academy-award winning movie introduced the topic to a broad audience. Maybe it will provoke us to think in new that we have a word for it!

Share and Enjoy!

Dr. Bob

Going Beyond the Information Given

[1] Am I embarrassed that I'm using wikipedia as a reference? Sure. Is there any reason to believe it isn't true? Not that I know.

[2] Miller, K. F., Smith, C. M., Zhu, J., & Zhang, H. (1995). Preschool origins of cross-national differences in mathematical competence: The role of number-naming systems. Psychological Science, 6(1), 56-60.