Language: The Mirror of the Mind

Feb 23, 2011 by

Linguistic relativism, that is the view that the language one speaks affects how one thinks, is gaining popularity in both scientific quarters and among the general public. I have contributed to this debate in several earlier postings (see for example here and here). But many questions remain. Some of these include:

  • Are Russians, who have two words for ‘blue’ (sinij and goluboj), better at distinguishing shades of blue?
  • Are the Piraha, a tribe in the Amazon rainforest whose language lacks number words, not able to keep track of exact quantities?
  • And do speakers of Australian aboriginal languages, who say north, south, east, and west rather than left and right, have better spatial orientation than English speakers?

In recent years there has been much research done to show that the laguage we speak affects how we think and perceive the world. However, recent studies have also uncovered much evidence for there being universal aspects of human language and cognition that transcend linguistic divisions.

This coming Spring, I will be teaching a course titled “Language: The Mirror of the Mind” at Stanford Continuing Studies Program that will discuss these questions in great detail. In this course, we will discuss some of the most hotly debated and fundamental issues in linguistics; examine important theories of language and its relationship to thought and culture (such as the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis and Noam Chomsky’s parametric theory of language); and scrutinize current research on both culture-specific and universal aspects of human languages. Our overarching goal is to gain a better understanding of human nature through what the philosopher Leibniz called “the best mirror of the human mind” —- our language.

The course is open to the public. It will take place at the beautiful Stanford campus (parking is free!) on Wednesdays, 7:00 – 8:50 pm from March 30 to June 1. More information and registration.

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