How Language Shapes Our Myths, Logic, and Common Sense

There are those who will tell you that learning styles are a myth – that the evidence from psychology, cognitive science, neurology, and other numerous fields just can’t prove there is any such concept as learning styles. Despite the rational arguments, the research, and the evidence, the belief in learning styles is still persistent. It is so ingrained in us for a number of reasons, but mostly because it logically makes sense. I know that the idea is a myth, and I know the reasons why it is a myth, but also know that it still makes sense, logically. I’m sure many of us feel this way. We’re suffering from a kind of cognitive dissonance in which we must believe the evidence rather than our logic and gut instincts.

Our personalities shape how we learn. Now, let’s replace a few keywords: Our language shapes how we think. Another perfectly logical idea! However, like learning styles, it is another myth (even one that some anti-learning styles gurus may subscribe to). This is a myth I have been bothered by for quite some time.

Not a week goes by in which I do not stumble across an article that explains how our language shapes our thoughts, our feelings, our beliefs, our diet, our bodies, or our love-making skills. It’s as if Sapir and Whorf themselves have risen from the grave and begun a linguistic click bait crusade. These poplinguistics articles are found on (mostly) reputable sites like NPR, The New York Times, TED.com, The Independent and Scientific American.

This is a hotly debated issue, and the “How Language Shapes Our…” titles draws a lot of traffic, shares, and retweets to the point where just the sheer volume of these titles is likely beginning to shape most people’s perspectives on this issue. And people believe it because the idea is just so logical! Of course language shapes us. Why wouldn’t it. However, it’s not that simple and I fear a belief in this kind of logic can have minor but far-reaching negative effects.

There is an implicit sense of racism and cultural differentiation behind these headlines that focuses on arbitrary differences. Yet, the headlines abound despite these ideas being debunked again and again. John McWhorter wrote a wonderful and brief book on this subject that I highly recommend reading called “The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language“. Below, I attempt to explain my thoughts on the subject, unfortunately not so articulately laid out as McWhorter’s. (Hear an interview with McWhorter on “The Language Hoax” here.)

The basic premise of most of these articles’ arguments is that our thoughts are filtered through our language, and therefore our language shapes our worldview (which is not clearly defined, but seems to be an amalgamation of thoughts, perspectives, and subconscious and perhaps conscious beliefs). For example, from the NPR article above, a glimpse of the Russian and English worldviews as permeated by language is summarized below:

For example, she says English distinguishes between cups and glasses, but in Russian, the difference between chashka (cup) and stakan (glass) is based on shape, not material.

To someone who believes in linguistic relativity (a.k.a Whorfianism a.k.a. the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis), this fact about how Russian and English distinguishe the objects is insight into how these languages’ speakers’ worldview differ. Couple this with the fact that Russian speakers have been shown in controlled experiments to recognize different shades of blue slightly faster than English speakers and you start to build a case for Whorfianism. A weak Whorfianist might state that this proves there is a fundamental difference in these speakers’ worldviews, and language is the variable that causes this difference.

One must say that because Russians experience blueness different from English speakers and that they perceive everyday objects as categorically different, they have different views of life (i.e. worldview). Taken to its logical conclusion, a strong Whorfian could argue the world of color is richer to Russians, and that this must be somehow related to the Russian peoples’ penchant for Communism, purges, borscht and onion domes. Whereas the world to an English speaker is rather muted and dull, which is why we may spend our time competing to design cars from every shade of the rainbow in a capitalist society.

Does the fact that most Romance languages having gendered articles make these language speakers more sexist in any way, or at the least, perceive gender and everyday objects radically differently? Does the English definite article mean that English speakers understand specificity better than speakers of Polish or Chinese who lack these types of constructions? Do Turkish speakers understand truth differently because they have special grammatical markers that tell the listener where the information they are hearing comes from?

If these last ideas sound extreme, it’s because they are. And herein lies the danger of Whorfianism. Whorfianism, in looking at language differences, focuses on what one language has and another lacks, and then makes broad generalizations about those language groups. The problem here is overgeneralization or false generalization, which leads to reinforcing subtle concepts of racism and otherness.

For example, if we say that the Hopi experience time in a better way because they lack the words for time and are therefore said to experience past, present, and future as a single phenomenon; or if we say that the Inuit experience the world in a deeper way because they have different words for minute variations of snow; or if we say that a certain Australian culture is closer to nature because they do not think of left and right, but use cardinal directions and are extremely accurate; if we say all this, then we are at the same time romanticizing the “primitive” and reinforcing otherness, no matter our noble and equalizing intentions.

According to McWhorter:

…in the end, the embrace of this idea is founded on a quest to acknowledge the intelligence of “the other,” which, though well intentioned, drifts into a kind of patronization that the magnificent complexity and nuance of any language makes unnecessary. It is a miracle when any one of the world’s six billion persons utters a sentence, quite regardless of whether it signals how they “see the world.”

He continues with a great example of the danger of Whorfianism:

Take the intransigent ultranationalist German historian Heinrich von Treitschke. Prussophile, xenophobic, and nakedly anti-Semitic, he was given in the late nineteenth century to insights such as “differences of language inevitably imply differing outlooks on the world.” You can imagine the kinds of arguments and issues he couched that kind of statement in, and yet the statement itself could come straight out of Whorf, and would be celebrated as brain food by a great many today. “Surely,” after all, “the question is worth asking …”—yet somehow, we would rather von Treitschke hadn’t, and find ourselves yearning for thoughts about what we all have in common.

Given that our intentions are pure, and that we seem to want to raise up the status of people seen as culturally “backward”, it would be better to focus not on these differences but on the fact that phonetics and grammar are universally arbitrary and that we all speak essentially randomly organized languages. Not equalizing enough? How about the fact that most “primitive” languages are thoroughly more complex than your average world language (English included)? Or how about the fact that, as McWhorter’s subtitle suggests, we all see the world in the same way?

So, here we have a perfectly logical idea: language shapes thought. And this idea make so much sense, that it is written about time and time again. Yet, looking at the evidence, and even more carefully critiquing the idea, we can see that this supposed common sense is just a myth. Yet, it still persists, just as the belief in learning styles and numerous other debunked myths do. Why?

Learning Styles and Autonomy

(This post is part of the 2nd ELT Research Blog Carnival.)

The concept of learning styles is quite contentious. Or at least it was. Today, learning styles pretty much sit at mythical levels. There is just no empirical evidence that they exist. Neuroscientists have ruled out learning styles as a possibility. So, I was a little surprised to find Cynthia Carr’s 2013 article, “Enhancing EAP Students’ Autonomy by Accommodating Various Learning Styles in the Second Language Writing Classroom”. This is a recently published article in INTESOL (the Indiana Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) Journal. Although it is a small journal, it is nonetheless peer-reviewed and professional.

A quick search on Google Scholar confirms that, despite them being “debunked”, research on learning styles is alive and well. Psychologists, cognitive scientists, and educational researchers – those who deal with less tangible aspects of the brain – still find value in learning styles. Either they didn’t get the memo from the neuroscientists, or there is some other reason learning styles continue to be researched. One reason is because learning styles are similar to the soul. You can’t prove there is a soul – not by any scientific measure. Yet, most people still believe it is there; most people feel it there. The same is true about learning styles. I definitely feel my learning style, and I use it to my advantage.

Still, what research there is regarding the identification of learning styles tends to be impractical. This is because, beyond the traditional VAK (visual, auditory, kinesthetic) styles, over twenty different learning styles have been identified. If there are that many styles, then how could it be possible to tailor instruction to all these learning types? As far as styles-based instruction goes, until there are classes like “Advanced Composition for Global, Field-Dependent, Tactile Learners”, the only thing that is possible is to use a variety of teaching and learning strategies to reach all learners – which means to essentially continue to do what all good teachers already probably do. In other words, continue to use a variety of teaching techniques and use a variety of activity types.

Despite these arguments, Carr’s article has plenty of merit. It not only reaffirms good teaching practice (i.e. teaching in a way that appeals to a variety of students) but offers an interesting discussion that looks at the intersection of EAP (English for academic purposes) writing, learning styles, and learner autonomy.

Autonomy

According to Carr, “Autonomous learners are those who have acquired learning strategies, a metacognitive awareness of those strategies, and a positive attitude about learning so that they can use the strategies as appropriate, with confidence, independent of a teacher” (pp. 45-46). Autonomy is seen as a harnessing of one’s learning styles or strategies that suit their learning styles. First, learners must become aware of their styles, and then understand how to use them to learn better inside and outside of the classroom. This has several implications for the writing classroom. For instance, teachers can design more effective instruction that appeals to a variety of learning styles.

Learning Styles

Carr explain that learning styles can be influenced by two main factors: “big cultural influences” and “small cultural influences”. Big cultural influences include the learners’ culture and the broad characteristics ascribed to it, for example, whether it is a collectivist or individualist culture. This may be useful for understanding attitudes towards group work and peer feedback. Small cultural influences include their English language training, their society’s educational culture, their living situation, and the atmosphere of the classroom. She also recommends encouraging style stretching – getting students used to different styles, which will prepare them for a range of teaching styles they will likely encounter during their educational careers (p. 47).

Among the various types of learning styles that exist, Carr identifies two different learning style dichotomies that are relevant to autonomy and second language writing. She argues that they are most relevant to writing because they are most related to the different stages of the writing process. The dichotomies are:

Sensing vs Intuitive

  • Sensors are careful workers who prefer facts and rules.
  • Intuitors are quick workers who are less rule-bound. Because of their quick work, they may make many mistakes.
  • To circumvent intuitive learners’ perceived carelessness, instructors can explain that “the structures of writing being learned in the class are like the theme of a piece of music; variations can come only after the theme is played” (p. 49).
  • Intuitive learners would prefer a range of topics to write about.
  • Sensing learners may prefer detailed, exact assignment guidelines.
  • Sensing learners may need more time to examine and apply language features being taught.
  • Most language instructors are intuitive and therefore may cover material too quickly for their learners.

Deductive vs Inductive

  • Inductive learners look at models and derive rules from them.
  • Deductive learners start with rules and then apply them.
  • Teachers should obviously vary the presentation of language structures.
  • Inductive learners may be better suited for authentic materials.
  • Inductive learners may benefit from careful use of model paragraphs.

Conclusion

Carr concludes that activities designed with learning styles in mind gives the student more power over how they learn. She has provided enough examples to give instructors ideas on how to adapt their own teaching. She also states that students need to be made aware of their own styles so that they can not only build autonomy but be prepared for a wide variety of teaching styles they will encounter.

By the end of the article, the question remains though: how do we make students aware of their styles? Which styles? And then, how do we show them how to harness their styles to build true learner autonomy? I provide some ideas from my own experiences below.

Building Autonomy

First, it’s important to make students aware of their styles. You can administer a formal learning styles survey, or hold a simple class discussion. Typically, I do the latter. I like to ask students the methods they already use for studying and the types of activities they prefer. These can give you a big clue about how they like to learn. Students who study by reading grammar books and rote-memorizing vocabulary words obviously like to learn in a more visual/verbal way. Is this the most effective way to learn? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Of course, that doesn’t mean you should only provide visual/verbal techniques. Stretching the students preferences is important, and may show them a new way of learning they may like. Students may not realize that using vocabulary and learning it in context is more effective than decontextualized list learning.

Furthermore, just as we serve as models (whether we like it or not) of both language use and language learning, so too should we serve as models of autonomy. We can explain to students how we like to learn (especially if we have tried to learn their language) and subsequently offer tips to our students. For example, I am a visual learner. I can hear a word many times, but not remember it. But, if I see it once, it’s not likely I will forget it. For me, this is as true in English as it is in foreign languages. Therefore, I am a heavy user of flashcards. Quizlet is the best flashcard app I have found. One if its best features is a tool which gives you one side of the flashcard and you must type the correct word. This serves as great reinforcement for new words. At the beginning of the semester, I demonstrate Quizlet to students and show them important and cool features. I then make flashcards throughout the semester for them, with the intention of increasing their autonomous learning of vocabulary. Quizlet also has features for more aural and kinesthetic learners too, so as far as learning styles go, its win-win.

I am also a deductive learner. I lived in Korea for two years and picked up almost nothing. I bought a grammar book and studied for a month and my skills grew literally exponentially. I crave rules (and exceptions) and the ability to apply these rules. Therefore, I prefer to study grammar rather than immerse myself in situations I am not linguistically prepared for. Students often balk at grammar, but when I explain this to them, they seem to understand its importance. However, I know inductive learning is also very important and therefore offer activities that move between the two dichotomies. I also offer extra resources (grammar websites, authentic websites) that can appeal to both or either learning style and can aid in autonomous learning.

In the end, whether learning styles exist in the brain, the mind, the soul or somewhere else, it is hard to claim we can’t feel them. Everyone has learning preferences. Good teachers teach use a variety of methods that meet a variety of styles, preferences, and even moods. The challenge is to make students not only aware of their styles but harness their styles to build stronger autonomous learners.

References

Carr, C. L. (2013). Enhancing EAP Students’ Autonomy by Acommodating Various Learning Styles in the Second Language Writing Classroom.INTESOL Journal10(1).