The purpose of this document is to provide a critical summary of Boroditsky (2001) paper on linguistic relativity, as well as provide an evaluation of the impacts of the paper’s findings. The paper is part of a mass of literature in psychology looking at evidence of language influencing thought, or how the speakers’ language structure affects cognition. In existing literature, this is also referred to as or the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis. The hypothesis has a strong (language determines thought) and weak (language influences thought) version. At present the majority of researchers reject the strong version of the hypothesis but have adopted the weaker version of the hypothesis. Here, it is important to note that this this is just one theory of language’s link to cognitive processes and that there are others, such as Chomsky (1965), which argues that all languages share the same underlying structure and inherited genetically. As such, any specific differences between languages are surface phenomena that do not impact the brain’s universal cognitive processes. While discussing the different theories of language link to cognition would be interesting, this is beyond the scope of this paper. The evaluation of Boroditsky’s findings and their impact in the field of psychology, as well as any criticism linked to the work, are discussed solely with respect to the linguistic relativity hypothesis.
Boroditsky (2001) study is based on the mental representation of time, and in particular how English and Mandarin speakers express time using spatial metaphors and whether this has an impact on temporal cognition. English typically uses a horizontally oriented spatial metaphor for temporal relations, such as ‘looking forward’ or ‘the past is behind’, while Mandarin speakers use vertically oriented metaphors to describe the passing of time. The author finds that these spatial metaphors have lasting effects on temporal cognition. In the experiment the author finds that English speakers exhibit priming from horizontal spatial relations to temporal relations whereas Mandarin speakers exhibit such priming from vertical spatial relations to temporal relations.
To test for this priming between spatial and temporal relationships the author has presented the subjects with a series of stimuli (pictures and sentences) which have to be identified as true or false. The stimuli are composed of targets and primes. The primes are made up of pictures containing spatial relations (e.g. a black and white worm on the horizontal axis accompanied by the statement ‘the white worm is ahead of the black’). The targets are made up of sentences describing the order of months in a year. Half of these sentences use a spatial metaphor to describe the order (e.g. March comes before April) and half use temporal terms to describe the order (e.g. March is earlier than April). The subject are asked to verify if the target statements are true. The author ran a set of three experiments: 1) Experiment 1 showing horizontal primes and targets; 2) Experiment 2 showing vertical primes and targets and; 3) Experiment 3 where English speakers were trained to think vertically of time and then tested using vertical primes and targets.
English speakers are found to be faster at verifying the spatial target sentences following horizontally oriented primes. The author theorises that the reason for this is because the spatial targets make use of spatial terms, which are horizontally oriented. In the cases were temporal terms are used as the targets, however, the author hypothesises that both language groups would rely on their normal mental representations of temporal event: English speakers would make use of a horizontal representation and Mandarin speakers would use a vertical representation because. A similar result was found for Mandarin speakers when looking at the results for Experiment 2. Interestingly, in Experiment 3 trained English speakers were also faster at verifying vertical targets. This is an important finding and is discussed in more detail below.
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The findings of this paper seem to support the linguistic relativity hypothesis at first glance. But when looking at the experiments and findings in more details, the results appear more complex than originally thought. Firstly, and as Boroditsky (2001) acknowledges, vertical metaphors of time are not absent from the English language (e.g. ‘I have a deadline coming up’ or ‘or something passed down from previous generation‘), although they are less frequent than in Mandarin (Gleitman, and Papafragou, 2005). While there is evidence English speakers think of time as horizontally oriented (e.g., Gevers, Reynvoet, and Fias, 2003), there appears to be no discussion whether the vertical time metaphors present in the English language have a potential impact on the results. Moreover, Chen (2007) has disputed the phenomenon altogether, failing to find predominance of the vertical metaphor in an analysis of Taiwanese newspapers. Chen (2007) sets to estimate the frequency of time metaphors, and finds that Chinese speakers actually use the horizontal spatial metaphors more often than the vertical metaphors. If this is indeed the case, than the logic behind Boroditsky (2001) experiments does not hold.
Another complexity arising from the Boroditsky (2001) results are the results of Experiment 3. The results of this experiment are an interesting one, because it appears to contradict the paper’s claim that native language metaphors impact temporal cognition. In Experiment 3 it takes only limited training for the English-speaking subjects to think vertically about time and thus lead to a reversal of the response pattern compared to Experiment 1. While the author highlights this as evidence of language influences thought, I find these results contradict the claim of Experiment 1 which states that native language metaphors have lasting effects on temporal representation. After all, it only takes limited training on a new temporal metaphor can change English speakers’ representation of time. Surely, if the linguistic relativity effects are long lasting, the English speakers’ default mental representation of time should have persisted?
The final issue linked to the Boroditsky (2001) paper findings is a failure to replicate the results. Both Chen (2007) and January and Kako (2007) failed to replicate the findings of the paper. January and Kako (2007) report six different attempts to replicate Boroditsky’s findings on cross-domain priming from spatial relations to temporal relations. In all six attempts the authors find that there is no benefit to English speakers in the horizontal prime condition. In their findings, English speakers are overall slower in verifying statements following horizontal primes, which is contrary to contrary Boroditsky’s (2001) prediction. The results of their replication attempts are summarised. Chen (2007) also made four attempts to replicate the results of Boroditsky’s experiment but was unable to obtain similar results.
To conclude, the results of Boroditsky’s (2001) are interesting but should be treated with caution given the contradictory findings within the paper related to Experiments 1 and 3 as well as the failure to replicate the results by other researchers. Furthermore, questions regarding the frequency and use of vertical spatial metaphors in the Chinese language also put doubt on the results. As such the results should not be taken as evidence supporting the linguistic relativity hypothesis.