Thought and Language

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Thought and Language

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Thought and Language



In this section we examine the relationship between language and thought: that language determines thought, that thought determines language, and that thought and language have different origins. Let us examine these three viewpoints in some detail.

Language as Determinant of Thought

In Hindi and other Indian languages we use a number of different words for various kinship relationships. We have different terms for mother’s brother, father’s elder brother, father’s younger brother, mother’s sister’s husband, father’s sister’s husband and so on. An English person uses just one word uncle to describe all these kinship relationships. In the English language there are dozens of words for colours whereas have only two to four colour some tribal languages have only two to terms. Do such differences matter for how we think? Does an Indian child find it easier to think about and differentiate between various kinship relationships compared to her English-speaking counterpart? Does our thinking process depend on how we describe it in our language?

Benjamin Lee Whorf was of the view that language determines the contents of thought. This view is known as linguistic relativity hypothesis. In its strong version, this hypothesis holds what and how individuals can possibly think is determined by the language and linguistic categories they use (linguistic determinism). Experimental evidence. however, maintains that it is possible to have the same level or quality of thoughts in all languages depending upon the availability of linguistic categories and structures. Some thoughts may be easier in one language compared to another.

Thought as Determinant of Language 

The noted Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget believed that thought not only determines language, but also precedes it. Piaget argued that children form an internal representation of the world through thinking. For example, when children see something and later copy it la process called imitation), thinking does take up which does not involve language. A child’s observation of other’s behaviour and imitation of the same behaviour, no doubt involves thinking but not language. Language is just one of the vehicles of thinking. As actions become internalised, language may affect children’s range of symbolic thinking but is not necessary for the origins of thought. Piaget believed that though language can be taught to children, understanding of the words require knowledge of the underlying concepts (e. thinking). Thus, thought is basic, and necessary if language is to be understood.

Different Origins of Language and Thought

The Russian psychologist. Lev Vyogotsky, argued that thoughts and language develop in a child separately until about two years of age, when they merge. Before two years thought is preverbal and is experienced more in action (Piaget’s sensorimotor stage). The child’s utterances are more automatic reflexes crying when uncomfortable than thought based. Around two years of age, the child expresses thought verbally and her/his speech reflects rationality. Now children are able to manipulate thoughts using soundless speech. He believed that during this period the development of language and thinking become interdependent; the development of conceptual thinking depends upon the quality of inner speech and vice versa. Thought is used without language when the vehicle of thinking is non-verbal such as visual or movement-related. Language is used without thought when expressing feelings or exchanging pleasantries, for example “Good morning! How are you? Very well, I am fine”. When the two functions overlap, they can be used together to produce verbal thought and rational speech.

Development of Language

Language is a complex system and unique to human beings. Psychologists have tried to teach sign language, use of symbols to chimpanzees, dolphins, parrots, etc. But it is observed that, human language is more complex, creative, and spontaneous than the system of communication other animals can learn. There is also a great deal of regularity with which children all over the world seem to be learning the language or languages which they are exposed. When we compare individual children, we find that they differ a great deal in the rate of their language development as well as in how they go about it. But when we take a general view of children’s acquisition of language all over the world we find some predictable pattern in which children proceed from almost no use of language to the point of becoming competent language users. Language develops through some of the stages discussed below.

Newborn babies and young infants make a variety of sounds, which gradually get modified to resemble words. The first sound produced by babies is crying Initial crying is undifferentiated and similar across various situations. Gradually, the pattern of crying varies in its pitch and intensity to signify different states such as hunger, pain, and sleepiness, etc. These differentiated crying sounds gradually become more meaningful cooing sounds (like ‘aaa’. ‘uuu’, etc). usually to express happiness

At around six months of age children enter the babbling stage. Babbling involves prolonged repetition of a variety of consonants and vowel sounds (for example, daaa, ba-). By about nine months of age these sounds get elaborated to strings of some sound combinations, such as ‘dadadadadada ‘into repetitive patterns called echolalia. While the early babblings are random or accidental in nature, the later babblings seem to be imitative of adult voices. Children show some understanding of a few words by the time they are six months old. Around the first birthday (the exact age varies from child-to-child) most children enter the one-word-stage. Their first word usually contains one syllable-ma or da, for instance. Gradually they move to one or more words which are combined to form whole sentences. So they are called holophrases. When they are 18 to 20 months of age, children enter a two-word stage and begin use two words together. The two word stage exemplifies telegraphic speech. Like telegrams (got admission, send money) it contains mostly nouns and verbs. Close to their third birthday. Le beyond two-and-a-half years, children’s language development gets focused on rules of the language they hear

How is language acquired? You must be wondering: “How do we learn to speak?” As with many other topics in psychology, the questions of whether a behaviour develops as a result of inherited characteristics (nature) or from the effects of learning (nurture) has been raised with regard to language. Most psychologists accept that both nature and nurture are important in language acquisition.

Behaviorism B.F. Skinner believed we learn language the same way as animals learn to pick keys or press bars. Language development, for the behaviourists, follows the learning principles, such as association (the bottle with the word “bottle’), imitation (adults use the word “bottle”), and reinforcement (smiles and hugs when the child says something right) . There is also evidence that children produce sounds that are appropriate to a language of the parent or care-giver and are reinforced for having done so. The principle of shaping leads to successive approximation of the desired responses so that the child eventually speaks as well as the adult. Regional differences in pronunciation and phrasing illustrate how different patterns are reinforced in different areas.

Linguist Noam Chomsky put forth the innate proposition of development of language. For him the rate at which children acquire words and grammar without being taught can not be explained only by learning principles. Children also create all sorts of sentences they have never heard and, therefore, could not be imitating. Children throughout the world seem to have a critical period-a period when learning must occur if it is to occur successfully-for learning language. Children across the world also go through the same stages of language development. Chomsky believes language development is just like physical maturation given adequate care, it just happens to the child”. Children are born with universal grammar”. They readily learn the grammar of whatever language they hear.

Skinner’s emphasis on learning explains why infants acquire the language they hear and how they add new words to their vocabularies, Chomsky’s emphasis on our built-in readiness to learn grammar helps explain why children acquire language so readily without direct teaching

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