Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg

Institut für Deutsch als Fremdsprachenphilologie

The language and thought debate

Speaker: Panos Athanasopoulos

Affiliation: Bangor University,

Title: The language and thought debate: Insights from bilingualism


Recent research has re-ignited the idea that our language affects the way we think. Methodological advances in the field have demonstrated new ways of exemplifying the effects of linguistic concepts such as colour terms and grammatical number on non-linguistic cognitive processes such as reasoning and categorisation (e.g. Roberson et al., 2000; 2005; Lucy, 1992; Lucy & Gaskins, 2003; Imai & Mazuka, 2003). To date, this research has focused primarily on monolingual participants, ignoring the possibility that bilinguals may have different mental representations of the world as a result of using languages that partition reality in different ways. The current paper presents an overview of a series of recent empirical studies by the author, which have investigated categorical colour perception and object classification preferences in bilinguals with languages that differ in lexical and grammatical concepts (Athanasopoulos, 2006; 2007; in press; Athanasopoulos & Kasai, 2008). Across studies, results show that bilinguals may shift their categorization behaviour towards the second language (L2) pattern as a function of specific linguistic competence and length of cultural immersion in the L2-speaking environment. These findings demonstrate that bilingualism is a dynamic tool in the investigation of the effects of language on cognition, as it allows researchers to directly measure the impact of language and culture on cognitive reorganisation, and reveal important interactions and patterns which are often masked by studying monolingual populations in isolation.