The last time I tried to learn a foreign language, I was living in an Italian suburb of Sydney. My hour a week at a local Italian class was inevitably followed by a bowl of pasta and a few glasses of wine. As an approach to language-learning goes, it was certainly more pleasurable than my German lessons at school. Despite the wine, it was also surprisingly effective. In fact, getting better at a new language doesn’t have to mean hard hours on lists of vocab and the rules of grammar. It turns out that what you don’t focus on matters, too. And a glass of wine may even help …
The novelist David Foster Wallace famously told a story of two young fish swimming in the sea, whereby an older fish glides by and asks, “how’s the water?”, to which they look at each other in puzzlement and say, “What’s water?” The central point of the parable is that we are constantly immersed in contexts to which we give little thought or consideration, but which nevertheless influence us profoundly. Among the most powerful of such contexts is language. A century of research on the linguistic relativity hypothesis (LHR; also known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) has shown that the language we speak profoundly affects our experience and understanding of life, impacting everything from our perception of time and space to the construction of our self-identity.
What might the implications of the LHR be for psychology itself? As a science, the field generally aims to be neutral and objective, and to discover universal truths about the human mind. Yet it is surely consequential that the field mostly conducts its business in English, this being the default language in international journals and conferences. For instance, if a phenomenon has not been identified in English – even if it has in other languages – it is unlikely to be a topic of concern, and may not even “exist” for English-speaking scholars at all.
One way that the field has sought to address this limitation is by “borrowing” words from other languages and cultures.To ascertain the extent of this cross-cultural borrowing, I analysed a sample of words in psychology and recently published my results in the Journal of Positive Psychology.
The idea that more talkative parents have children with superior language or cognitive skills has a long – and sometimes controversial – history. An influential study from the early 1990s claimed that American children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds have poorer language development because they hear fewer words from their parents. But scientists have pointed out several issues with this early research – including that it involved researchers going into people’s homes to record them, potentially affecting the language they used.
Since then, other researchers in the United States have researched families’ use of language in a less intrusive way – and found that any effects may be more subtle than originally claimed. Now, in what they say is the “largest naturalistic observation study of early life home environments to date”, scientists have brought these methods across the pond. A study of more than 100 London families, published recently in Developmental Psychology, has found that the quantity of language used by parents is related to children’s cognitive skills – but exactly why remains unclear.
How do we acquire our native language? Are the basics of language and grammar innate, as nativists argue? Or, as empiricists propose, is language something we must learn entirely from scratch?
This debate has a long history. To get at an answer, it’s worth setting the theories aside and instead looking at just how much information must be learned in order to speak a language with adult proficiency, argue Francis Mollica at the University of Rochester, US, and Steven Piantadosi at the University of California, Berkeley. If the amount is vast, for instance, this could indicate that it’s impracticable for it all to be learned without sophisticated innate language mechanisms. In their new paper, published in Royal Society Open Science, Mollica and Piantadosi present results suggesting that some language-specific knowledge could be innate – but probably not the kind of syntactic knowledge (the grammatical rules underlying correct word order) that nativists have tended to argue in favour of. Indeed, their work suggests that the long-running focus on whether syntax is learned or innate has been misplaced.
The age of social media has opened up exciting opportunities for researchers to investigate people’s emotional states on a massive scale. For example, one study found that tweets contain more positive emotional words in the morning, which was interpreted as showing that most people are in a better mood at that time of day.
The premise of this line of research is that our word choices reflect our psychological states – that if someone uses more positive or negative emotional words, this is a good indication that they are actually experiencing those emotions. But now a new study has thrown a spanner in the works, finding that – for spoken language at least – this assumption might not hold up. In their preprint posted recently on PsyArxiv, Jessie Sun and colleagues found that emotion-related words do not in fact provide a good indication of a person’s mood, although there may be other sets of words that do.
Think about the concepts of “red” and “justice” and you’ll notice a key difference. If you’re sighted, you’ll associate “red” most strongly with the sensory experience, which relates to signals from cone cells in your eyes. “Justice”, in contrast, doesn’t have any associated sensory qualities – as an abstract concept, you’ll think about its meaning, which you learnt via language, understanding it to be related to other abstract concepts like “fairness” or “accountability”, perhaps. But what about blind people – how do they think about “red”?
A brain-imaging study of 12 people who had been blind from birth, and 14 sighted people, published recently in Nature Communications, shows that while for sighted people, sensory and abstract concepts like “red” and “justice” are represented in different brain regions, for blind people, they’re represented in the same “abstract concept” region.
For decades, linguists have debated the extent to which language influences the way we think. While the more extreme theories that language determines what we can and can’t think about have fallen out of favour, there is still considerable evidence that the languages we speak shape the way we see the world in more subtle ways.
For instance, people are better at perceiving the difference between light and dark blue if they have dedicated words for those colours (like in Russian) than if they don’t (like in English). But it turns out it’s not just the words that we use: the way in which a language is structured – its syntax – is also important. In a recent study in Scientific Reports, Federica Amici and colleagues show that the word order of a language predicts how good its speakers are at remembering the first or last parts of a list.
You might imagine – as prior research suggests many people do – that putting your feelings into words will only intensify them. In fact, many laboratory studies have found the opposite to be true. Stating out loud, or writing down, what you are feeling – a process that psychologists call “affect labelling” – seems to down-regulate emotions, diminishing their intensity.
Now an intriguing study has explored this phenomenon outside of the lab, analysing over a billion tweets to find examples of when people used a tweet to put their emotional state into words. From analysing the emotional language used in preceding and subsequent tweets, Rui Fan and his colleagues were able to see how the act of affect labelling influenced the course of an emotional state. “We found that, for a majority of individuals, emotional intensity decreased rapidly after their explicit expression in an ‘I feel’ statement,” the researchers write in their paper in Nature Human Behaviour.
It feels selfish to fret – it’s the other person who is suffering – but agonising over what to say to a friend in need can be incredibly anxiety provoking. If you want to be supportive (and not make matters worse), what are the right words to say to someone who has experienced a relationship break-up, for instance, or lost their job? Should you express sympathy, downplay the situation, say you know how they feel, or something else entirely? A series of studies in Basic and Applied Social Psychology will offer relief to anyone who has ever agonised over this predicament – the findings suggest that in fact there are few, if any, “magic statements that, if spoken, would provide lasting comfort to the recipient.”
Shawna Tanner at Wayne State University and her colleagues propose that in all likelihood trying too hard to say the right thing could actually lead you to make “clumsy statements that do more harm than good”. They advise that as long as your friend or relative sees you as supportive, then your “mere presence and sympathy is likely enough”.
The idea that the language that you speak influences how you think about and experience the world (the so-called Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) has a long and storied history. A lot of research into the issue has focused on colour perception, and evidence has accumulated that people whose native languages have different colour categories don’t see the world in quite the same way.
Now in a new paper, published in Psychological Science, Martin Maier and Rasha Abdel Rahman at the Humboldt University of Berlin report that by affecting visual processing at an early stage, such linguistic differences can even determine whether someone will see a coloured shape – or they won’t. “Our native language is thus one of the forces that determine what we consciously perceive,” they write.