The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis: Forgotten History, New Implications for Second Language Acquisition.

We handle even our plain English with much greater effect if we direct it from the vantage point of a multilingual awareness. For this reason, I believe that those who envision a future world speaking only one tongue, whether English, German, Russian, or any other, hold a misguided ideal and would do the evolution of the human mind the greatest disservice. -Benjamin Whorf, 1941, p. 313

Any student who’s taken a linguistics course will be familiar with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, doubly so if they’ve completed any course work on sociolinguistics. While I can’t recall it from my undergraduate Linguistics for non-Linguists course, I certainly do remember it from my M.A. Introduction to Sociolinguistics one where we used Mesthrie, Swann, Deumert, and Leap’s Introducing Sociolinguistics, 2nd edition. In the section that introduces students to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the bottom of the page is taken up by a graphic that’s supposed to represent how English and a native American language conceptualize the flow of time.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis comes in two forms—a strong one and a weak one. In its strong form, it states that language determines how we experience and make sense of the world because of its effects on our cognitive processes. This is linguistic determinism, and I believe any linguist worth their degree would agree it’s false. In its weak form, it posits that language influences thought and therefore how we experience and make sense of the world. This is linguistic relativism, which has to varying degrees been tested by psycholinguists and linguistic anthropologists to provide results on the ways that different language groups discuss time, color, and a wide range of other phenomena. Now, all of this is rather interesting, and many young linguistics students find it a catchy thought, “Why yes, language simply must influence thought because it’s how we express thought. Oh, and look Chinese monolinguals organize these color chips differently than do Russian monolinguals, and this is even different from how English monolinguals do. This clearly suggests different cut-offs in cognitive categories. And, let’s not forget the Eskimos and their fifty words for snow…” Case closed, yes?

Well, not quite. As I recently learned while reading Pavlenko’s article “Whorf’s Lost Argument,” there’s a whole forgotten history to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. It’s not overly sordid—at least not when compared to national scandal—but, it certainly changes the implications of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis as it relates to second language acquisition (SLA) research.

Pavlenko points out in her article that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that all young linguists learn in foundational courses isn’t really the work of Benjamin Whorf. Rather, it’s the interpretation of a small body of Whorf’s work that was advanced by two psychologists Roger Brown and Eric Lenneberg (1954) who sought to apply Whorf’s thinking on linkages between language and the thought into a hypothesis that could be tested through objective, empirical research. In this act of interpretation, they stripped away much of Whorf’s views on multilingualism and created a wholly new theory; a theory’s whose key assertions, many linguistic historians would argue, Benjamin Whorf would likely disagree (Pavlenko, 2016, p. 585). By stripping away the aspect of multilingualism, Brown and Lenneberg erected a rather myopic, monolingual lens in their creation of what we now know as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

Now, I could talk at length about the shaky logic of Brown and Lenneberg. That passage in my copy of Pavlenko is filled with “WRONG’s,” “呵呵’s,” and “WTF’s.” But, I won’t. I would, however, highly encourage you to read it for yourself as it’s rather entertaining. In closing, I’d like to turn to Pavlenko’s discussion of what acknowledging multilingualism might mean for the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and SLA research.

Pavlenko points to a history of Whorfian research in SLA that has examined linguistic relativity and cross-linguistic effects. This has covered how individuals encode motion into either verbs or gestures and how L1 communicative norms might influence L2 production. What’s common in current SLA research in this vein is that it’s all been in quasi-experimental settings in labs or classrooms. Pavlenko suggests, that a multilingual turn is needed in the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and that this means that research on linguistic relativity ought to be pushed out of the classroom and back into the field, where functional multilinguals can be observed engaging in live communicative acts. Watching live acts of human interaction allows applied linguists to better understand how trajectories of acquisition and linguistic proficiency actually prime L1/L2 Whorfian effects. A multilingual turn opens the door to other exciting possibilities. First, it acknowledges and can uncover possible bi-directional Whorfian effects. That is, it can highlight how the L1 might influence L2 communication and vice versa. The second thing that the multilingual turn might do is open the door to increased interdisciplinary research and collaborations. Personally, the best part of a multilingual turn in linguistic relativity theory is an acknowledgment of global realities that most speakers are multilingual, or at least multidialectal. And, that there’s nothing inherently special about Western languages.

Source Material

Ahearn, L.M. (2011). Living language: An introduction to linguistic anthropology. London: Wiley-Blackwell.

Brown, R., & Lenneberg, E. (1954). A study in language and cognition. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 49, 454-462.

Mesthrie, R., Swann, J., Deumert, A., Leap, W.L. (2009). Introducing sociolinguistics (2nd ed.). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Pavlenko, A. (2016). Whorf’s lost argument: Multilingual awareness. Language Learning, 66(3), 581-607.


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