Friday, December 17, 2010

Coming Full Circle on Whorf

With this interesting study on English and Mandarin speakers, the research on the influence of language on thought has come full circle. Researchers at Stanford have found that Mandarin speakers were far more likely than English speakers to view time vertically, with earlier events above later ones. They conclude that this is due in part to differences in the words used by the two languages to refer to time and events.

You'll no doubt recall that Whorf's original research focused in part on differences between of English and Hopi subjects in terms of how they spoke about and conceived of time. For years, linguists discounted and derided his findings based on everything from prejudice about the conclusions to claims that his work was shoddy and his conclusions self-motivated.

Now we have a modern, well-designed study that arrives at the same conclusion Whorf did-- that the structure of your native language can influence the structure of your thinking and conceptualization.

Now can we start taking the implications of that conclusion seriously and consider implementing changes in our educational system to accommodate?

Monday, December 13, 2010

Who will Reframe the Reframers for Us?

In this report on people in the "stigmatized" role of debt collector, researcher Madeleine McKechnie found that reframing the way they describe their work helped these workers feel more positive and therefore stay in their jobs longer. They called themselves financial counselors or information detectives or negotiators. These substitutions in wording help them change their self-image and give them a way to feel helpful rather than predatory.

The researcher notes that "Not a lot of research looks at these professions that are necessary for a functioning society."

In the comments section after the report, one wag noted:

The author is using the phrase "functioning society" as a substitute for more accurate words so she can feel positive about the validity of her conclusions and continue disseminating propaganda as is necessary to maintain her role in a "functioning society."

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Researchers catching up with GS

A recent study in Europe has found that language has an effect on both verbal and nonverbal number processing in first-graders. The researchers looked at number comprehension in children who spoke German, Italian or Czech, and found that differences in how the language handles placeholders had a significant effect on how well the children comprehended two-digit numbers. Their conclusion:

The data corroborate a weak Whorfian hypothesis in children, with even nonverbal Arabic number processing seeming to be influenced by linguistic properties in children.

The more linguists study language in real-life settings, the more they achieve these kinds of results. Many recent studies have found similar results, and headlines often grudgingly acknowledge the earlier discoveries. The mention of Whorf in a research, rather than amounting to an academic kiss of death, now indicates a modern, forward thinking study. How nice.