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Thursday, March 27, 2014

Does Language Precede Thought? - Gender Edition

Way back before life took a tricky turn, I was actually maintaining two blogs, because the diversity of my obsession with languages just couldn't quite fit into one. Today I am reposting an oldie but a goody from my former Speech Therapy blog, Wide World of Speech Therapy. I give you:

Does language precede thought? - Gender Edition

In 2002, Boroditsky, Schmidt, and Philipps looked at one of my favorite questions. You know I love this one:

Does language precede thought, or does thought precede language?

The research team was interested (or "were interested," if you're British) in how gender markers in various languages (think "el" vs. "la" from Spanish 101) affect the way people conceptualize the world. In other words, does their language background affect their world experience?

Subjects were native speakers of Spanish and German, but proficient in, and tested in English. The team asked the subjects to state the first 3 adjectives that came to mind for various English words. The test words were of one gender in Spanish and the opposite gender in German.

Invariably, the adjectives that subjects chose were strongly linked to the gender of their native article-noun paradigm. For example, the word for "key" is masculine in German, but feminine in Spanish. German speakers described keys as "hard, heavy, jagged, metal, serrated, useful." Spanish speakers described keys as "golden, intricate, little, lovely, shiny, tiny."

Conversely, the word for "bridge" is feminine in German and masculine in Spanish. German speakers described the English word "bridge" as "beautiful, elegant, fragile, peaceful, pretty, slender." Spanish speakers said bridges are "big, dangerous, long, strong, sturdy, towering."

A full discussion of the findings is available in the paper, but to put it simply, these findings once again indicate that people's thinking about objects is influenced by the their language.

All the more reason for SLPs to get out of bed and head to work for another day!

For some more FUN tidbits from this research team, check out The Elephant Who Ate Peanuts Around the World!