Language and thought

Does language shape thought? Or does our way of thinking is one regardless of the language we speak? Can we think of an object, or a concept if we don’t know the words to use for such? What happens then, when we know for sure we want to convey a thought but we don’t know the exact words to do so? These are all very interesting questions, or at least some people think so. Not so long ago, I read a text about a Stanford cognitive scientist called Lera Boroditsky (click here to read it) in which she it was said that the way we speak actually influences the way we think.

This is not communication (by mollybob)

In the same text, they talk about Chomsky and we can read that Noam Chomsky “argued that all languages share the same deep structure of thought and that thought has a universal quality separate from language.” Stephen Pinker, in his The Language Instinct: How The Mind Creates Language, mentions Mentalese, and says that “knowing a language, then, is knowing how to translate mentalese into strings of words and vice versa. People without a language would still have mentalese.” (Pinker, 2007:73)

Another article called my attention a couple of weeks ago. This time, it wasn’t an article written about Lera Boroditsky, but an article written by her (and you can read it here). Lera again mentioned Chomsky and the idea of Universal Grammar and explained a bit about her research. And if she’s right, would it make any sense to say that what we read in David Crystal’s The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language is very unlikely to be true from now on? Crystal (2010:15) says, “but in its [Sapir-Whorf hypothesis] strongest form, it is unlikely to have any adherents now.”

Now, if Lera Boroditsky is right, what would that mean to language teaching and learning? If Chomsky and his UG hypothesis aren’t exactly what happens, and if L1 makes a big difference in terms of reasoning and verbal thought, does this mean it makes much more sense for anyone to learn a foreign language with a non-NEST who thinks like his or her students? What, then, of the many theories of language learning and teaching which have been generalised to different languages, are they still true? Or, does this even matter at all? Should I be writing about it and should you be reading it? Oh, and do the words I’ve chosen to write as a Brazilian really convey my message to speakers of other languages?

There are just too many questions, and perhaps someone will eventually find more evidence to support such and such point of view. However, all these questionings got me thinking about the idea of the ‘inner voice’, or the rush to speak. Jeremy Harmer talked about this in his workshop at the Braz-TESOL, and he made reference to members of his (or our, as these two are also part of mine) PLN: @kalinagoenglish and @TEFLPet and gave them due credit during the talk. Getting our learners to have internal conversations might be extremely beneficial for their language learning. Scott Thornbury in How to Teach Vocabulary (and this had to be one of the books I haven’t got at the moment) also mentions some strategies that work to help students learn vocabulary items, and one of these is to give them time to silently pronounce the words in their mind before asking them to instantly repeat them.

There clearly is a link between language and thought, and, to quote Crystal (2010:14), “a simple answer is not possible”. But there are some things that spring to mind:

  1. Teachers ought to allow time for individual work and mental processing in class.
  2. The role of teachers who share the same language and culture with learners should be highlighted.
  3. By learning a second language, we’re also learning a new way of thinking and analysing situations we face.
  4. An integrative orientation towards learning a second language have much higher importance.

Lots and lots of questions and thoughts and questions about this topic. Before I hand it over to you, I’d just like to finish saying that learning a language is a lot more than learning the words and even the culture of where such language is spoken. Learning a language is a way of broadening your view of the world because it adds to your own mental structure and enables you to think differently.



  • Crystal, D. (2010), The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language (3rd edition), Cambridge: CUP
  • Pinker, S. (2007), The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language, New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics
  • Thornbury, S (2002), How to Teach Vocabulary, Longman

24 thoughts on “Language and thought

  1. #2 The role of teachers who share the same language and culture with learners should be highlighted.

    This is such an opposing opinion to the years valuing NESTs over non-NESTs that like with promoting L1 in the classroom as opposed to an English-only policy (this is still the norm in private-language schools in Canada), I hope it gets some deserved attention.

    1. Hi Tyson,

      Thanks for your comment! I don’t know if you also think the same way, but I’d like to add that the main problem is not even with NESTs, but with people in general who still seem to favour NESTs and think they’re always the best teachers. I’ve seen many NESTs who actually praise the job done by non-NESTs and acknowledge that there are weaknesses and strengths for both groups.

      I agree with you. I hope people start thinking more critically about this matter and understand that there are positive things to be taken into account regarding NESTs and non-NESTs. 🙂

      1. Agreed Henrick. If well-trained and well-experienced, both NESTs and non-NESTs can do fantastic jobs and facilitate learning in different ways.

      2. And we should always emphasize “well-trained”, I guess. There should always be a concern with teacher training and teacher development.

  2. Henrich,

    There is growing research into this area – especially about thought/thinking without language. It is becoming more and more apparent that we don’t need language to think (however it really helps!). I’m in a rush but will post some links.

    I do think you are hinting at the big role that language plays in “identity”. This is an important notion to understand. Language isn’t in my opinion, a determiner of culture but it is the other way around (and why Crystal is right) but identity is something else….

    However, I’d suggest you read Vygotsky’s Language and Thought. Especially chpt 7 where he really hits the nail on the head about “egocentric or inner” speech.


      1. Hi David,

        Thanks for your contribution and sharing. Even though you were in a rush, the links and the comment contribute a lot to the discussion.

        The idea of language being a determiner of culture or not seems to be pretty hard to define, huh?! But then again, language and culture are somehow linked, I suppose. I’m really interested in reading a bit more about Lera’s research to see where she’s headed.

        Thanks for the link as well! 🙂

  3. Interesting, I was just thinking about how language and the words that we use conveys so much about our culture. I will always remember my fifth grade teacher telling us that the native Alaskans have 35 different words for snow. Our language conveys something about us, where we place importance in our culture. I like the idea of learning other languages not just to communicate with others who speak the language, but also as a way of better understanding the whole culture and learning a new way of thinking about the world.

    1. Hi Kelly,

      Isn’t it funny how often we remember things our teachers have told us a long time ago and how these things still make us think? I guess this research carried out by Lera will definitely make learning a foreign language more important than it already is.

      Cheers! 🙂

  4. Interesting and thoughtful post! I certainly see myself as an external ‘model’ for my students, being a native speaker, this works for pure mechanics and delivery but at the other end of the process it’s bound to be more complex. I hadn’t thought about the relative strengths of these two kinds of teacher and it warrants more discussion. Perhaps I need to give more time to thought processes and indeed the silences needed for this. I use lots of lateral thinking games as speaking exercises – maybe there is more going on during these exercises than meets the eye. Thank you for such a thought provoking post!

    1. Hi Berni,

      Thank you for the thoughtful comment as well. Even though a lot has already been discussed about NESTs and non-NESTS, I also feel there’s always something else to be said and discussed. Surprisingly, what I usually see is that NESTs value non-NESTs a lot more than non-NESTs value themselves… funny, huh?! It’s as if there’s some sort of inferiority complex non-NESTs have, even if it’s something subconscious. And it gets even worse when students and society (even without having had any training or reading whatsoever) as a whole tend to overestimate NESTs. Hmm… definitely something to think about.

      Always a pleasure to read your comments here! 🙂

  5. What a fun debate! I read Boroditsky’s articles, and I can’t help but think back to the days of discussing literary theorists in an undergrad class. Her research seems to be based off the basic principle of Ferdinand Saussure’s theory of the signifier and the signified. Broken down in to its simplest argument, Saussure would agree that language shapes thought. Of course to discuss or even compare the two philosophies (Boroditsky to Sassure) would be a separate task in itself. Here’s a quick, clear summary I found on Saussure’s theory as a reminder.

    Also, I love that you wrote that teachers should allow students to say a word in their mind first; try pronouncing it in thought before just repeating it out loud. I teach both Spanish and English, and while I let my English students read a poem on their own first before we read it as a class out loud, I typically just have my Spanish students repeat a new word right away. I’ll try that out with my Spanish classes this year- thanks!

    1. Hi Andrea,

      Thanks for joining the discussion. And many thanks for that link as well! It seems there are lots and lots of questions in this field yet to be answered.

      I’d love to hear what will come out of this silent period. My own experience is that it’s been beneficial for learners. 🙂

  6. Henrick,

    You are right: many questions… some (tentative) answers. Just the other day I was listening to a German Professor talk about communicative competence… his final message was that he believes he is eventually coming to the conclusion that it is not possible to teach a foreign language… We can teach vocabulary, phonetics, syntax, even a little culture… and the fact that many of us actually accomplish that is a formidable task. But it is still not LANGUAGE… Disturbing, isn’t it?

    Ah… congrats for the blog… I wish I had your stamina…


    1. Hi Virgílio,

      That is disturbing. Would that mean he believes we can acquire language (going back to Krashen’s distinction of acquired vs. learned language) or that not even that is possible? Would you by any chance have a link to his talk? I’d be very interested in listening to it if it’s available.

      Thank you for your kind words! But to be honest, I believe it’s I who would like to have your stamina based on the amount of things you manage to get done. 🙂


  7. i have a question that when we start to learn a new language do we start to think in that also?
    i am learning english , sometimes i start to think in english but i only prefer to think in my native language so will not thinking in english affect my english learning

    1. Hi Aditya,

      When we start learning a language it is common, as I see it, for us to sometimes think in that language. I’ve heard many people even saying that they actually dream in that foreign language. However, I can’t tell you this is a pre-requisite for you to learn the language you are learning. The way we think is closely linked to our identity, and there’s still debate in this area.

      Will not thinking in English affect your learning? Hmm… I don’t think so, but I do believe you may be able to learn it faster if you try to have some silent conversations with yourself in English. For instance, how could you explain to a friend, in English, the meaning of a sign, or a specific dish you may be eating? All of these are likely to help you remember the words and the structure of the language more easily, which, in turn, might end up helping you with your learning.

      I hope this has helped!



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