This content is archived, it could be outdated.
IMPRS workshop Relations in Relativity "great success"
How does language influence the way we think? This question was central at the workshop 'Relations in Relativity: New Perspectives on Language and Thought', held on the Nijmegen campus from May 9-11, 2012. The workshop was the first organised entirely by IMPRS for Language Sciences students.
June 4, 2012
According to Benjamin Lee Whorf, a student of the American linguist and anthropologist Edward Sapir, the structure of a language tends to condition the ways in which a speaker of that language thinks. Whorf's hypothesis, known as the principle of linguistic relativity, has been criticised by linguists and psychologists over the decades, but always remained a source of fascination. A modern perspective on linguistic relativity, however, has to take into account more detailed questions: How does language influence thought? In which domains? And when do language effects kick in?
On the photo: The Relations in Relativity Organising Committee. From left: Helen Buckler, Beyza Sumer, Maartje van de Velde, Maarten Versteegh, Sho Tsuji, Inge Alferink, Ewelina Wnuk, Rebecca Defina, Sarah Dolscheid and Joost Rommers. Photo credit: George Saad.
Experts from over the world
During the 3-day International Max Planck Research School (IMPRS) for Language Sciences workshop, language experts from over the world discussed the relativity issue: How does language influence thought? Over 100 people attended.
On the workshop's first day, MPI director Stephen C. Levinson held an introduction to linguistic relativity in the aula of Radboud University. This overview was followed by a conversation in which Dedre Gentner (Northwestern University, USA), Gary Lupyan (University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA), and Barbara Malt (Lehigh University, USA) discussed possible mechanisms of linguistic relativity. For instance, it was discussed that having a linguistic label for a concept may help people to learn and, later, to activate that concept.
IMPRS student Rebecca Defina discusses her research with workshop speaker Dedre Gentner. Photo credit: George Saad.
The second day started with a conversation on early or late effects of language on speech sound categorisation by John Kingston (University of Massachusetts, USA) and Emmanuel Dupoux (École des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, France). For instance, as a baby learns a specific language its ability to discriminate between sound contrasts not found in that particular language decreases. This is a strong example of the effects that language can have on general cognitive processing.
The workshop ended with a panel discussion on the continued relevance of linguistic relativity, asking the questions, 'Why should we study linguistic relativity, and how does it impact our everyday lives?' The conversations and discussions were followed by masterclasses for IMPRS students and poster presentations by students.
"The workshop was a great success," says Sarah Dolscheid, one of the organising students. "It was really inspiring to move beyond the simple question of whether language influences thought or not. Bringing together experts from various disciplines was very helpful to get a fresh and more detailed perspective on the topic of linguistic relativity."
Els den Os, coordinator of the research school, explains, “We wanted our students to learn from the experience of organising an international workshop on a topic that excites them. We’re very proud of their success.”
More information about the workshop is available at this link.