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.
You’re in a packed food court, searching for somewhere to sit. Just as you spot a communal table with two free spaces, one much bigger and more comfortable-looking than the other, you realise there’s a person standing beside you with a tray and they are looking for somewhere to sit, too. What do you do? Rush to take the better seat – but appear selfish? Or let them have it, so seem generous – but eat your lunch in cramped discomfort?
A new paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that you should do neither. Instead, you should say something like, “Oh, go ahead – you choose a seat”, and the odds are that she or he will not only leave the better seat for you, but also think that you’re generous.
Alongside the physical jostle, thrust and tug of sport there is a parallel contest involving words. Although this trash talking between players before, during and after games is well known, it is surprisingly unstudied by psychologists. Yet these exchanges play a major role, arguably swinging the outcome of games. Consider an infamous example: the 2006 football world cup final in which Italy’s Marco Materazzi insulted the sister or mother (depending on whose account you believe) of France’s star player Zinadine Zidane, who in turn responded by head butting Materazzi. Zidane was then sent off, with Italy going on to win the game on penalties.
Is trash talking more prevalent in some sports than others? What does trash talk tend to be about? A new exploratory paper in Human Nature is among the first systematic investigations of trash talking in sport, and certainly the first to examine the phenomenon through an evolutionary lens.
Crap. Merde. Ibn sharmoota.* Swear words exist in most cultures (Japan is a notable exception), and many of us use them so casually and so frequently that by the time children start school, they have, according to one count, acquired a profanity bank of 30 to 40 words. (My own seven-year-old loves to whisper “fricking” in a friend’s ear, making them both giggle guiltily. My only defence is that he certainly didn’t get that one from me…)
Since even words like “fuck” are used conversationally, at least in the US and UK, surely they’ve lost the power to trigger a negative response in a listener – especially as far as younger adults are concerned? Not according to a new paper published in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology. Melanie DeFrank and Patricia Kahlbaugh, at Southern Connecticut State University, found that teenagers who swear casually were judged by college students as being less intelligent and less trustworthy.