The Spectrum of Language by Kathleen Bittner

spectrum of language

Language is a fundamental tool in human interaction. Not only is it a means of communicating our thoughts and ideas, but it helps forge friendships, relationships and cultural ties. Throughout history, researchers have examined the importance of language. Legend has it that an ancient Egyptian king once had two babies raised in isolation to see what language would naturally emerge. (He was disappointed to find that their first word-like sounds resembled the language of the Phrygians rather than the Egyptians.) More recently, the prominent American scholar Benjamin Whorf proposed that language shapes our thoughts and emotions, influencing our perceptions of the world around us.

Language is not only a vehicle for the expression of thoughts and perceptions; it also represents a fundamental expression of social identity. By using speech, humans are able to use language to convey ideas about the world around them – whether it is in their native language, heritage language, or a learned language.  Research at Lehigh addresses a wide sampling of this vital research domain.

The foundation of speech

Not only do languages differ in how they encode thoughts and perceptions, they also differ in the basic building blocks they use to map word meanings onto the forms of words. Padraig O’Seaghdha, associate professor of psychology and director of Lehigh’s Cognitive Science Program, uses a cross-linguistic approach to explore the role syllables play in producing words in different languages. 

Researchers disagree as to how syllables are represented in word memory. To address this and related questions, O’Seaghdha and his colleagues compare performance of the same simple tasks in different languages such as English, Mandarin Chinese, and Spanish. For example, in a set of experiments recently published in the journal Cognition, participants rapidly produced words that sometimes shared certain properties, such as beginning with the letter D in English. Participants were familiarized with pictures such as a ball of dough, a dew-covered leaf, or a bowl of dye and asked to name them with single words (dough, dew, dye). The images were shown in a random order so participants did not know in advance which word they needed to say next. Shared elements that helped speakers produce words more rapidly, such as the D in this case, demonstrated that those properties were important for planning and initiating speech.  But it turns out that speaking English requires us to prepare to produce words differently than Mandarin.

“English speakers love to have the same sounds in the beginning of their words,” says O’Seaghdha.  “In contrast, Mandarin Chinese speakers don’t show any benefit from words with the same first sound.  However they do benefit if the words share the entire first syllable.  This suggests that Mandarin is fundamentally different from English.  Mandarin uses the syllable as the starting point for turning a word that is in mind into a sound pattern, but English uses individual sounds as the starting points and actually builds the syllables rather than retrieving them directly from memory.”

Because English speakers start with the individual sounds of words and then combine them into syllables, the syllables are present in the spoken output, and it may seem that English and Mandarin follow the same procedures.  However, the research suggests that this is not the case. 

“We are always looking for universal principles, but in practice, theories are actually very language specific” said O’Seaghdha. To resolve this problem, he proposes that theories need to be more abstract, addressing general principles of language processing rather than attempting to fit the same account to all languages.  Although the units of language initially retrieved from memory are different in Mandarin and in English, they may serve similar pivotal roles in planning and preparation of speech. 

In a more recent project that addresses questions of language and thought, O’Seaghdha is exploring conceptions of immediate time with English and Mandarin Chinese speakers. Together with collaborators Jenn-Yeu Chen and Jui-Ju Su at National Cheng Kung University in Taiwan, he is investigating how grammatical differences between English and Mandarin may influence perceptions of the duration of pictured events, and perhaps even the actual experience of the present moment of time by speakers of these languages. English has tenses, while Mandarin does not, and this absence of tense may lead speakers to expand their definition of the present. “If so, what the neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga calls ‘the thin edge of the present’ could be a little wider for a Mandarin speaker than for an English speaker,” speculates O’Seaghdha.

Language and thought

While much of O’Seaghdha’s work is concerned with the how sounds are organized and used in language, Barbara Malt investigates how people use language to talk about the world around them.

“There was a common idea in the literature that humans have mental categories of things in the world such as objects that are tables, or objects that are chairs.” said Malt, professor psychology.  “The idea was that when you look around the world you perceive things in terms of those categories.  There has been a tradition of research in what is the composition of those categories.  How do we put things into categories?  What makes things be perceived as belonging to a coherent category?” 

To explore this concept, Malt developed a project where English speakers looked at a set of 60 pictures and gave each one a name, words like bottle, jar, and container.  She then shared this project with a student who was a native speaker of Chinese, to conduct in China.  The student showed the same 60 pictures to native Chinese speakers.

 “Where we had a range of things English speakers called bottle, or jar, or container, the Chinese speakers split them up differently.” said Malt.  “Later, we found that Spanish speakers had a third way to divide the objects up by name. The things that Spanish speakers called botella only partly overlap with the things English speakers called bottle.”

With this, doubts were raised about whether there really are abstract categories of things in the world that everyone simply perceives.  Because if Chinese and Spanish speakers are dividing the object s differently than English speakers are, and differently from each other, what does that mean about the objective reality of these categories of things in the world?

Malt’s research now looks at speakers of other languages and other sets of objects. Different languages draw very different boundaries among objects or other types of things: body parts, colors or ways of moving such as walking, running, hopping, skipping, or jumping.

Other than looking at different naming patterns, English, Chinese, and Spanish speakers made additional judgments about the objects.  In a recent project, speakers were asked put the 60 pictures in groups according to what items were similar. 

“Generally we found that the other kinds of judgments people make about the objects are much more consistent across the speakers than the way they label them.” said Malt.  “So what they see as being like each other or having similar properties isn’t really changed by the fact that they name them in different ways.”

“The Whorfian hypothesis suggests that if you have different ways of talking about something, the language itself may create different ways of thinking.” said Malt.  “That would imply that when you are looking at speakers of different languages, who have different ways of naming things in the world they would have correspondingly different ways of thinking about them.  So when we look at the Chinese speakers – their actual way of thinking about the world would fall into these Chinese categories, whereas for English speakers they think about the world in terms of the English categories.”

“Our research supports a different perspective, which is that people perceive and understand the world in pretty much the same way. Differences emerge only when a speaker must communicate; then they must use the naming patterns of their language.  Our data favor the idea that thought is more universal than Whorf believed,” Malt said.

While initially this research studied monolingual speakers, the study expanded to include bilingual speakers. Conducted in Belgium, a geographic region ideal for having monolingual Dutch speakers, monolingual French speakers, and bilingual Dutch/French speakers, Malt compared how these speakers named objects.

“If the Whorfian hypothesis is right, when you learn to speak one language it really changes the way you think about things.” said Malt.  “It is hard to imagine what bilinguals do in that case, because if you have two different languages, and they are giving you two different ways of seeing the world, how do you live with two, or how can you juggle two, or can you really have two different ways of seeing the world?  It’s easier to think of what a bilingual could do if you think of it in the terms of what we have been finding: Maybe there is just one main way of seeing the world, but two different ways of talking about it.”

In fact, bilinguals may not even have totally different ways of talking. If a speaker is bilingual, he or she could follow the same naming patterns of monolingual speakers of each language.  Another possibility is that it might be hard to do that, and the bilingual speaker’s two languages somehow influence one another.  Malt and her Belgian colleagues found the second outcome—Belgian bilinguals used their French and Dutch words in ways that were more similar than the speakers of just one language did. 

Bilingual Heritage

These findings are important as bilingualism and often multilingualism continue to be the norm rather than the exception in cultures around the world. Another aspect of bilingualism concerns the distinction between native and heritage languages, as children of immigrants encounter the languages of their parents’ native countries. Kiri Lee, associate professor of Japanese in the department of modern languages and literature, has been conducting research for the past six years on the role language plays in preserving cultural identities.

With an extensive background as a linguist, Lee is examining language proficiency of children for whom English is a second language and how language impacts children’s sense of identity and their perception of themselves.

“We are interested in how the children identify themselves – are they a native speaker or are they a heritage language speaker?” said Lee.  “Depending on their proficiency in Japanese do they have a low self esteem, and how they view themselves in this setting?”

Language proficiency is an important component in remaining connected to one’s culture. Studying a group of students at a New Jersey Japanese language school, Lee found that throughout the four years they were followed, students’ perspectives on their connection to Japan changed as their proficiency and maintenance of their heritage language increased.  Although they weren’t “native speakers” they could now be labeled as “heritage speakers” and they found their own identities as heritage speakers. In general, when they become more proficient linguistically and culturally, they feel more connected to their Japanese heritage, notes Lee.

Understanding how we use language is crucial to understanding ourselves and others. Our ability to represent thoughts and perceptions through words possibly makes humans unique among terrestrial species.  Questions about the fundamental nature of the human mind form one of the last uncharted frontiers of science.  Research on universal principles of language, on language and thought, and on the cultural importance of language is an important part of meeting this challenge.