Multilinguish Episode 2: Sapir-What?!

Does speaking a certain language alter the way you think and perceive the world? In this episode, we debate the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.
Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

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Have you ever wondered if the language you speak influences the way you see the world? Maybe you’ve heard that people who speak certain languages are better at saving money, or perhaps you’ve seen the movie Arrival and thought, “Huh, that makes sense.” If so, you’ve spent time pondering the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (whether you’ve heard that name before or not). The hypothesis posits that your brain works differently depending on which language you speak, which is a highly contentious idea in the world of psycholinguistics. In this episode of Multilinguish, we debate the arguments for and against Sapir-Whorf, and discuss what it would mean for the world if the hypothesis were true.

Part I: The Case For And Against The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

We hold a friendly debate over the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, where producers Thomas Moore Devlin (for) and David Doochin (against) attempt to convince executive producer Jen Jordan to take our side. Then, we briefly hear from linguist John McWhorter, who’s written a whole book about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

Part II: What We Learned This Week

In our roundtable segment, “What We Learned This Week,” the whole team gathers to share the fun and fascinating language facts we uncovered in our research. This week:

  • David talks about the history of language in South Africa
  • Steph explores the way you can fit language learning into very small amounts of time
  • Jen explains just how much French influence there is on the English language
  • Thomas finds out where the names for colors come from
  • Dylan tells us what he learned about crystals (and whether they can help you learn a language)

Show Notes

Special thanks to John McWhorter for speaking with us.

Does Our Language Change How We See The World? | Babbel Magazine
The Language Hoax by John McWhorter
Keith Chen: Could your language affect your ability to save money? | TED
Lera Boroditsky: How language shapes the way we think | TED
Russian blues reveal effects of language on color discrimination | PNAS

Episode Transcript

Jen Jordan: From the language app Babbel, this is Multilinguish. I’m executive producer, Jen Jordan. This week, we debate how many colors are actually in the rainbow. That is, we talk about linguistic relativity.

Jen Jordan: As part of our research, we spoke with John McWhorter, author of The Language Hoax, host of the fantastic podcast, Lexicon Valley and an all around celebrity academic and linguistic. Maybe a celebrity is a bit of a stretch, but he is definitely well-known.

Jen Jordan: Later on in the episode, the whole team is back to share what they learned this week.

Jen Jordan: First up, producers Thomas Moore Devlin and David Douchin bring us the Sapir-Whorf debate. Let’s get into it.

Jen Jordan: And today we’re gonna have a little bit of a debate, right?

Thomas: Yeah. Finally a debate.

David: Finally. It’ll be a clean match.

Thomas: Yeah.

Jen Jordan: I just know that Thomas has been talking about this Sapir-Whorf hypothesis since you were hired, I think?

Thomas: Yeah, I mean —

Jen Jordan: Can you explain what it actually is?

Thomas: So, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is like a few different things. The original idea behind it was that there was this researcher named Benjamin Whorf, he was a student of Edward Sapir, but Edward Sapir didn’t contribute as much as Benjamin Whorf to the origins.

Jen Jordan: So, wait, is this like a teacher versus student, student becomes the teacher … Star Wars-like prophecy?

David: It’s like teacher plants a seed and watches it grow into a beautiful and potentially wrong tree flowering plant bush of some sort.

Thomas: There’s also this concept in science where pretty much every single naming of a theory or hypothesis or anything is not the right name for what it should be. Like Pythagoras didn’t invent the Pythagorean theorem.

Jen Jordan: Fair enough.

Thomas: But that’s neither here nor there. Benjamin Whorf, scientist, linguist, he got really into language, and he went and studied the Hopi people of …

Jen Jordan: Arizona.

Thomas: … Arizona, which were an Native American tribe living there, and he wanted to explore their language, and he studied it for a few years, he collected information, and he came to this conclusion, where … I’ll quote exactly what he said, “The Hopi languages seem to contain no words, grammatical forms, constructions, or expressions that refer directly to what we call time.”

Thomas: So, imagine a language where time doesn’t exist. Are you doing it?

Jen Jordan: I can’t.

Thomas: Yeah, it’s highly difficult.

Jen Jordan: Can you tell by the blank expression on my face that it’s not happening?

Thomas: Yeah. It’s hard, and so he’s not even arguing that these were a timeless people, and they just always lived in the present, or something like that. And from this, he made this idea that, “Oh, well if your language doesn’t have this, have a concept, then your perspective on the world is changed.” And I think possibly a more hip example would be in this movie Arrival, if, David, you wanna talk about that.

David: Yeah, I could touch on it. I seen it once, but as a student of linguistics, I took a great interest in it, ’cause it seemed to frame this hypothesis really well for the layperson who might not be really familiar with it. I had read a lot about the hypothesis before seeing this movie but not knowing that they would tie in. I won’t give anything away, I don’t wanna spoil anything, but the plot of the movie is, basically there’s a linguist, a language scientist, and she is tasked with trying to communicate with these aliens that just show up on earth one day, and all the world’s militaries are freaking out, no one knows what to do, how to talk to them, or what they want. So, it’s the job of this small team of linguists to try to communicate, and what they realize is that the way these aliens talk, or … they’re not verbal or vocal, but they use these signs that they create out of ink, it has a squid, octopus-type feel. Really creepy, but you start to see this aliens get sort of humanized, and you kind of empathize with them, ’cause it’s clear they’re trying to communicate something, but no one can figure it out. So, there’s all these scenes, where … is it Amy Adams?

Thomas: It’s Amy Adams.

Thomas: I always confuse her with Emma Stone and with the other redheads of Hollywood.

David: I confuse her with Rachel McAdams.

Thomas: Oh, that would make sense.

David: Wasn’t she in Mean Girls, wasn’t she …

Jen Jordan: Yes, she was Regina George.

David: Regina George, that’s what I thought.

David: So, this time it’s Amy Adams, although I think, Rachel McAdams would’ve killed this role easily. Amy Adams did a great job, but …

Jen Jordan: David.

David: This is taking me forever to explain, but the point is that the scientist, Amy Adams, when she’s working with these aliens, they have a really unique concept of time, such that they express sentences or thoughts and expressions kind of in one go, and you have to kind of parse them apart from this one sign that they sort of squirt out into … it sounds just super gross, and I can’t explain it, but basically they learn over the course of a couple weeks, or maybe it’s months, Amy Adams’ character learns how to sort of communicate with these aliens and read their language, and she begins to sort of adapt her world view and her perspective to fit the way that they see the world, which is not on a finite continuum, from start to finish. It’s kind of like these beings can transcend the barriers of time, and so when she begins to be able to speak with them and communicate with them, then she sees her world differently, and the whole narrative of the story kind of weaves that in as well. You’re kind of following her from the beginning, and then things are out of place, and you’re not sure, chronologically, what’s happening, when. But then it all kind of ties together in the end.

David: So, I don’t wanna give away too much, but it’s a really beautiful movie, and it gets you thinking, “Is it possible if you start to adopt or acquire the language of another group that doesn’t necessarily have the same way to interact with the world or interpret the world as you do, are you gonna start to see the world in a different way? Is their way of thought gonna have an effect on your way of thought communicated through language?”

Jen Jordan: So, it’s sort of like the trippy college conversation you have at 2 a.m. Is like, “What if the blue I see is not the blue you see?”

David: Exactly.

Jen Jordan: Is that where we’re going?

David: That’s where we’re going. Yeah, and there’s actually a really famous example, I think Thomas will probably bring it up.

Thomas: Yeah, blue will come back. Blue is important in this whole thing.

Jen Jordan: Alright, we’ll put a pin in that.

Thomas: But basically, when you talk about these grand claims about this group of people not having a time. Benjamin Whorf was entirely disproven, because there was another linguist, Ekkehart Malotki, where he wrote an entire book called Hopi Time, and he showed how many different Hopi words and expressions use time, and was basically like, “I don’t know what Benjamin Whorf was doing with this tribe, but he was wrong.”

Thomas: And so for a long time, the whole concept was frowned on and studying it was, like, “You’re an idiot. This isn’t true. All lined to the same.” But more recently, in the later 20th century, and especially now, there’s this thing called neowhorfianism, which sounds like a Star Trek religion, bu it’s not. It’s kind of the same concept where language can affect your thinking, but the claims tends to be a little bit smaller.

Jen Jordan: So, the purpose is that this, can we call it, A New Hope and continue the Star Wars theme instead of the Star Trek theme?

Thomas: No. We’re gonna use all the Sci-Fi. I mean A New Hope does make sense in the whole story. I mean, I’m not gonna go through and explain and how all the episodes of this align.

Jen Jordan: Someday, that’s for another cast.

David: Yeah. But I think the name A New Hope is sort of appropriate, because, so Benjamin Whorf comes out with this sort of groundbreaking theory that rattles all of what we know about linguistics. And then you have other linguists who come back and say, “Well, maybe that’s not exactly right.” You mentioned Ekkehart Malotki, I think I’m saying his name right. His 600-page counter argument as basically boiled down to “Whorf’s hypothesis is a load of bologna, and here’s why.” But I think that now, with he movement of neowhorfianism, there’s a little bit of leeway and room for, what I’ve read is called, the weak hypothesis, which is basically that language doesn’t necessarily shape thought, but there are ways and there are correlations between the two, and I really want to start this debate so we can kind of get down to the meat of the issue, and sort of beef up our arguments and get talking and get thinking. Because I don’t necessarily know what the correct answer is, how much weight the hypothesis holds, but I’m more inclined to think that it is kind of a load of bologna, that language doesn’t shape thought in the ways that Benjamin Whorf had originally proposed, and I want to see what you have to say about it.

Thomas: Yeah, I kind of come down the side that definitely Benjamin Whorf made a lot of big claims that were not fantastic. But it does seem there are these measurable difference depending on the language you have. And the main thing is that usually when this stuff comes out in the media, it ends up the people talk about Sapir-Whorf, and they talk about these grand things, and they’re like “Here’s why speaking a different language makes you better at tying your shoes.” Which doesn’t make as much sense.

Jen Jordan: It doesn’t.

Thomas: So, I think the best way to go about this is we’re gonna go through three different grand claims that are being made in relation to Sapir-Whorf, and then kind of debate what the evidence actually tells us about them.

Jen Jordan: We know that Neo-Whorfianism isn’t actually A New Hope. It’s New Hopi.

Thomas: Oh, no. That was …

Jen Jordan: Anyway. We’ll cut that out.

David: No, we need to publicly humiliate Jen.

Jen Jordan: I’ve been holding onto that for the last two rounds of conversations.

David: Is it out of your system now?

Jen Jordan: It’s out of my system, let’s hit the three points.

David: Let’s begin.

Jen Jordan: Let’s hear them.

Thomas: Alright, we’re gonna start with financial planning, the most exciting place to start.

Jen Jordan: That’s my jam.

David: That’s how I spend my Saturday nights.

Thomas: So, financial planning. The idea behind this was there was this Yale economist, Keith Chen, and he did a study of a bunch of languages, and he tried to find this correlation, “Does the language you speak correspond to how well you are for planning for the future?” And he specifically focused on money, so his basic hypothesis was that languages that have a future marker, which English does have, when you say, “I will go to the market.” The “will” is a future marker. He hypothesized that that will make you worse at planning for the future, which seems counterintuitive, but that is the hypothesis, because people who don’t are just more linked to time. It comes down to time a lot, with Sapir-Whorf, interestingly.

Thomas: And so in the study, he did studies and then languages, like Chinese don’t have the future marker, and so they’ll have more GDP. And so he made this big graph, and he showed the GDP of these countries to show certain countries, the ones that use a language that doesn’t have a future marker, are better at saving, if that makes sense.

Jen Jordan: So, he did this by GDP and not actually by personal savings trends.

Thomas: Yeah, just a more general … I guess it was probably easier to get overall, especially because people are gonna vary so much.

Thomas: So, it does look, from his study, and he’s done a TED Talk. A lot of people who talk about Sapir-Whorf have done TED talks at this point. I don’t know what it means, but …

Jen Jordan: They like to talk.

Thomas: Yeah, we’re gonna have another TED Talk mention later on, but this was Keith Chen’s hypothesis that it does seem backed up by the evidence.

David: Okay, so, I have a lot of points of rebuttal. And I don’t even know how to sort them out or where to begin. Okay, so, let’s start here. So, let’s assume that because, this isn’t about my own example, I didn’t come up with this, but I read this somewhere, and it really struck me. So, France has one of the highest GDP in the world, really large economy, part of the EU, and they speak French there. I guess it doesn’t matter that they’re part of the EU, but they have a really high GDP, and they speak French there, that is the language of France. So, you could make the argument, if you follow your line of logic, or not your line, Thomas, but Keith Chen’s line of logic, that because they speak French in France, they are better at economic planning, they’re better at building for the future, or whatever inherent quality about French it is that gives them the ability to really just amass a lot of capital and build on it. All that good stuff. But then you look at a country like Haiti, which is a Caribbean Island, also speaks French, for the most part, and their GDP is one of the lowest in the world. I think I read that it’s 138th or somewhere around there. So, where’s the disconnect? Why is it that one nation that speaks French in the Caribbean has such a low GDP compared to another nation that speaks the same language?

Jen Jordan: So, you’re talking about an apples to apples comparison about the language that they’re speaking, and why would that be so different?

David: Right. And if you wanna hold that variable constant, because it is. I don’t think the dialects of French-spoken … in Haiti and France are so much different that they’re considered different languages, so let’s consider them the same for now, then you have to assume that there’s some other factor that’s contributing to why these two nations have such different GDPs and economic standings in the world. And if you assume that, then you’re saying that language isn’t inherently the only factor behind the thought and the actions and the motivations of the people who speak that language, that there’s something else at play, whether it’s environmental factors or cultural factors, the ways that the different societies work that are not explicitly tied to language but are affecting these outcomes, does that make sense?

Jen Jordan: That’s interesting. But I feel like you’re applying a correlation, causation thing, whereas he’s using an illustrative way to show that these cultures are probably good at saving because of the way they approach money. You’re approaching it that, if you speak this language, you have to have a high GDP.

David: Yeah, but if your argument is that these cultures are good at saving because the way they approach money is not a cultural condition and not a linguistic one, because you’re saying that X culture is good at saving money, because it’s good at saving money.

Jen Jordan: But if you don’t have a lot of money to save in the first place, you’re not gonna be able to save.

David: That’s true, that is true.

Thomas: Well, it’s percentage GDP that was being measured. So, I mean it could go either way.

Jen Jordan: Well, that’s interesting.

Thomas: Yeah, and I’m willing to admit also Keith Chen’s study was a little bit debunked later on, and I’ll mention John McWhorter for the first time, because he’ll come up a few times, because John McWhorter’s a linguist who’s very against the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and even the weaker hypothesis, he’s not into. And he points out that some of the languages that Keith Chen labeled as not having these future tense actually did, or the other way around, and so, if you actually look at a more accurate layout, then it doesn’t correlate.

Jen Jordan: All right.

David: So, you also mentioned it’s not that intuitive that languages that have a verb or a way to express future, like “will” in English, that sort of tense, are probably more inclined to be better at planning, and I don’t necessarily follow that logic, but even taking a step back, I wanna say that I can’t imagine a situation in which a person just doesn’t have the thought capacity to be able to plan for the future. Imagine if we were hunter-gatherers, and we needed to go out and collect or forage for our tribe, we can’t just wait until the very last minute when we run out of food, and then it kicks in, we have the thought that, “Oh, it’s time to go collect or forage or hunt or whatever.” We have to be able to make advanced plans to know what’s gonna happen in the future, even if it hasn’t happened yet, and then be able to account for that. I really don’t think I can picture any situation in which some group of peoples just inherently better at planning, because their language dictates that it must be so. I feel like that’s just a recipe for disaster if you can’t look at the future and picture the future and what will come, and then be able to respond in the present to try to prepare for that, does that make sense?

Thomas: Yeah.

Jen Jordan: Yeah. I mean, just because you’re not expressing it, and obviously we’re looking at this coming from the perspective of one native speaker looking at another language, so just because the way you understand expressing the future or thinking about the future in one language isn’t equivalent to yours, doesn’t mean they’re not thinking about it. Because I think you’d have to look more broadly at human nature and how we basically existed up to this point. Yeah, we have more than just the present moment that’s sort of under consideration like consciousness. So, I would buy that. I mean, I think that’s definitely a stretch to say that they don’t think at all about the future — they do — because of what language they speak. Think I’m on David’s side so far.

Thomas: Okay. Chalk one up for David.

Jen Jordan: Point one, David.

Thomas: So, we’ll go on to grammatical gender and the brain.

Jen Jordan: We love talking about grammatical gender here.

Thomas: So, the briefest definition of grammatical gender, well to ignore pronouns and stuff, but for nouns, specifically, English doesn’t have this, other languages do, where a noun a will be male, female, neuter, or something.

Jen Jordan: In French, this table is feminine.

Thomas: Yes.

Jen Jordan: I learned that, well, in middle school, but also, again, this morning. On Babbel.

Thomas: It’s also feminine in Spanish, and that’s all I know off the top of my head.

David: It’s German. German, it’s masculine. Der Tabelle, I think.

Jen Jordan: It should just be feminine or masculine, all the languages should agree. I don’t understand why it’s so difficult.

David: Yeah, that is so difficult, and it’s so arbitrary, ’cause when you think of gender, you think of traditional male, female dichotomies, and then German kind of knocks it up, because you throw in neuter, and what is neuter, how do you classify something as neuter. But we, as English speakers, do have a conception for male and female, and it shows up in people and sometimes animal, but for the most part, we don’t really refer to objects as male or female, but why in German — and this is a point that you’re about to bring up — why in German do some words that are masculine appear as feminine in another language, for example? And, I forgot what the bigger point I was gonna make, as an intro, it was really good, and…

Jen Jordan: I think Thomas was making a point, and then we interrupted him to talk about this stuff for a while.

David: Oh, but the point I was gonna make is that I think gender should kind of be technically viewed as type or classification, because the word gender, I think, especially today is kind of loaded with the sort of male, female iconography and symbolism behind it. So, if you think about gender as type, I think that that could help us sort of lay a groundwork for what we’re about to discuss, and if you don’t think about … I’ll just stop there.

Thomas: Yeah. Well, I will say even English speakers do gender some objects, like ships, we call “she,” and it’s weird.

David: Nations, we call them “she.”

Thomas: Yeah, I guess it’s mainly … I can’t think of any examples of objects that we call “he,” specifically.

Jen Jordan: Yeah, I can’t think of a big example that everybody uses.

Jen Jordan: I’m sure we’ll think of it after we’re done recording.

Thomas: Yeah, we’ll come back. But the type thing is a good way to think of it, because it is kind of arbitrary, why is a table female or male, why is anything anything? And the prevailing notion was that it is arbitrary, they were just made up, because certain languages force you to think in gender. This is actually a different name of a hypothesis that some people prefer to say pro-Whorf, because it’s slightly less … I need to find the name of it. One moment. So, Franz Boas and Roman Jakobson created the Boas-Jakobson principle. Instead of thinking about “What do languages have the ability to produce?” it’s “What do languages force you to produce when you’re speaking?” So, in Spanish, when you say a noun, you have to give it a gender. You can’t just be like, el miss. I can’t even … if your race, like the gender from la mesa it’d be like “miss,” and then you wouldn’t have a “the.” So, if you think about it this way, and it’s like, “Does that matter, though, in how you’re thinking?” And at least one study says that it does. One study which was done by Lera Boroditsky and Lauren Schmidt — there is also a TED talk on this topic — and they wanted to see if the genders that we assigned to these things actually affect the way that we think of the objects. So, one example that they used was the word “bridge.” In German, is die Brücke, which is feminine, and in Spanish, it’s “el puente.” And they asked Spanish speakers and German speakers to describe a bridge and see what kind of words they used, and it did happen that Spanish speakers tended to use strong, masculine-skewed adjectives, like the bridge is “dangerous” and “strong,” and, I don’t know, “husky.” And Germans used more feminine-skewed adjectives, like “slender” and “beautiful” to describe this bridge.

Jen Jordan: And this was the same bridge, I’m assuming.

Thomas: I don’t know if they actually looked at a bridge, I think. Well, maybe. Maybe they were told, like, “Describe bridges.”

Jen Jordan: Okay. Interesting.

Thomas: But, it’s the same concept, and it’s just is interesting that the adjectives went different ways.

Jen Jordan: Okay, Thomas. So, now I wanna make sure I’m understanding this, so you’re point of view that you’re presenting is that because there is grammatical gender in many languages, that affects how we describe or think about certain objects.

Thomas: Yeah.

Jen Jordan: David, do you agree?

David: I don’t. So, I am inclined to think that grammatical gender is arbitrary, and that it’s all that it ever will be, that it’s not gonna have a huge weight on the way that we interpret the world. Mostly because … so, if you think about languages that have gender, whether it’s male, female; male, female, neuter, like German. Are they more inclined to see objects, people, ideas, whatever as inherently more masculine or more feminine because they’re assigned a gender. So, I mean that’s the question we’re asking at hand, I recognize. Then you can ask yourself, “Well, how would that play out other than people just describing the bridges with feminine qualities or masculine qualities, would it actually affect the way that they live their lives?” So, my question is, do languages that have gender make the people who speak those languages inherently more sexist or more inclined to ascribe to certain gender roles. If you have the idea that a table is always feminine in Spanish, does that mean that a table can never have masculine qualities or, extrapolating, does that mean that men and women can only have certain roles, because they’re assigned … like, okay, so, think about clothing for example. A lot of clothing for women in Spanish has a feminine gender, like la blusa, “blouse,” is feminine. Or, maybe this isn’t the best example, los pantalones. Los pantalones are masculine, so is a man inherently more driven to wear pants because it’s masculine, or is that just …

Jen Jordan: I don’t know, I think your argument is kind of falling apart.

David: Yeah, no, I agree it is falling apart.

Jen Jordan: I think Thomas gets this one.

Thomas: I mean …

Jen Jordan: I think it’s just difficult to make your point without doing a lot more studies.

Thomas: Yeah, I mean, that’s kind of the main issue with this, which I will acknowledge. Not to defeat my own point, but this is not as measurable, and it is, like, “Will a Spanish man want to take a bridge more, because it’s a masculine bridge, and it’s el puente, and it’s strong?” Does that affect … and we just don’t really know if that’s gonna make any difference in the way you live day to day. We’ll move onto the third one, because it’s the most measurable, and it has to do with color.

Jen Jordan: Yay color.

Thomas: So, color’s come up, I think, the most of any topic with Sapir-Whorf, because, like it was mentioned, it’s the most measurable result that people have found, and they keep doing studies on the very specific phenomenon. So, how many colors are in the rainbow?

Jen Jordan: Six, right?

Thomas: In English, yes.

David: Or seven – indigo.

Thomas: Generally, you just do red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, and that’s the six colors, the six basic colors we have. But, in Russian, they have more. Specifically, they have two blues. We have red and pink in English, and there’s really no reason that we call it pink instead of light red, but we do. And Russian has siniy and goluboy. I’ve never taken Russian, so let’s just assume that that’s accurate.

Jen Jordan: I think that’s close, I think.

Thomas: And so, it just describes two different shades of blue. Envision in your minds, top of screen, there’s a square of one shade of blue, and then there’s two smaller shades of blue below it. And you had to choose which shade matched the square at the top. Yes.

Jen Jordan: Okay.

David: Yeah, that makes sense. Matching game.

Thomas: The further … the more difference there is between the two options that you have, the quicker you’re going to be able to answer which shade it is, because your brain can just more easily be like “Oh, that one’s very different from this.” So, you just click that one. And the result that was found that is really important, is that when the two shades of blue below kind of crossed this threshold between siniy and goluboy, the Russians were slightly faster than English speakers at choosing which color matched the top color.

Jen Jordan: Okay.

Thomas: Yeah, so what this proves — “proves” — is that because Russians from childhood up are taught there are two different blues, their brains are slightly faster at processing when shades of blue are different.

Thomas: That sounds very minor, as I say it aloud, now. But, the fact that there is an observable difference just shows that, at some level, this blue, the way that we categorize things with language, does affect our thinking.

Jen Jordan: It sounds like something that happens in the Matrix when they’re training Neo, and how does he prove shades of blue, and he becomes adept at seeing, I don’t know, be the next Matrix sequel.

Thomas: We’re going through through every Sci-Fi movie, which is great, because it does kind of feel Sci-Fi-ish, this whole thing.

Jen Jordan: Fifty Shades of Blue.

Jen Jordan: So, it sounds like you have some fairly decent evidence that this is the case.

Thomas: Yeah, I mean, multiple studies have been done at this point, there’s one very recently and it’s just, from this, Neo-Whorfians say, “Case closed. We have these results, they’re reproducible, language affects how we think.” And I’ll wait for the rebuttal.

David: Let me gather my thoughts. Okay, so, I guess my question at hand, I keep saying at hand, but, this is a podcast, so maybe you can’t see my hands.

Thomas: Maybe.

David: Maybe, well, I dunno, that’s up the audience to decide.

David: So, I kind of think of a chicken and the egg argument. Do we have six terms for colors of the rainbow in English, because we can only interpret six colors of the rainbow, or are we only trained to interpret six colors of the rainbow, give or take a few, because we only have six words. So, I mean, that’s the question about this entire debate, does language affect thought, or does thought affect language? Part of me thinks that, yeah, sure, Russian speakers can identify different shades of blue, and that might be because they have different words for them, but that doesn’t seem like a totally linguistic phenomenon, it just seems like Russians have, for generations, taught their children how to distinguish between shades of blue, and we haven’t. And so, Russians have more practice or more experience identifying different shades of blue. And it doesn’t matter what the names are for them, it’s just the fact that they do have … again, I mean, if I say it’s the fact that they have different names, that kind of plays into your hand a little bit.

Thomas: Yeah. I feel like your argument is Russians have practiced since birth telling the color blue apart.

David: Okay. If you remove language from it completely, and let’s just say you train someone like Neo in the Matrix by pointing out two different shades of blue. If you just expose them enough to two different shades of blue, where once they didn’t know how to distinguish between them, after a certain amount of time, whether or not you speak to them or give them different names or words for these shades of blue, that person’s probably gonna be able to distinguish between them eventually. Just like, if I met two people, two identical twins, for example, who look the same, obviously, because they’re identical, I won’t be able to tell them apart at first, but with enough training of my eye, I’ll be able to do that. Because, it has to do with the way that I’m absorbing and collecting information, but not necessarily linguistically. And those two twins, I just thought of this example, and I’m really proud of it. So, if those two twins have different names, yes, they’re different shades of the same genetics, or the same DNA, but just the fact that they have different names, that’s not what makes them different, it’s the fact that they are different, and overtime, you just learn how to pick them apart and separate them. So, if Russian children are given from birth two shades of blue to look at and interact with, then, yeah, of course it’s possible that they’re gonna be able to click one square of one shade faster on a computer. But does that mean that it’s because of their language that’s doing that?

Jen Jordan: So, you’re saying it’s, from a science perspective, it’s not the name, it’s the observable characteristics of the person or of the color that Russians are able to identify, not because they’ve been taught early on that there’s two different words for it.

David: Yeah. Also another example that I can talk about while you’re researching is the Eskimo word for “snow.” This is probably the most often cited and most often debunked but still really popular myth around Sapir-Whorf, that the Eskimo people, the Inuktitut, have 30 plus different words for snow, whereas we, who speak English, have maybe three or four at most. We say “snow,” we say “sleet,” “hail,” “slush,” but other than that, we don’t really distinguish among the types. But for the Eskimo people, who live surrounded by snow every day, they have so many different terms, because some of it’s powdery snow, some of it’s really icy snow, and so because they interact with snow so often, they’ve just become attuned to … or the idea, the myth, that has now been debunked, is that the Inuktitut language has so many different words for snow, and therefore it shapes the Eskimo people’s ability to pick out the different types. But that kind of seems just like this Russian blue example, where, sure, if you grew up around snow all the time, you’re just gonna be more intimately familiar with what the different types of snow are, and maybe that’s why your language was shaped in the image of so much snow to reflect the reality of the place that you live and the environment you live in, but your language doesn’t inherently affect how you see the snow itself, it’s just the fact that you have so much exposure and observance of the snow, that you are able to pick it out. And then, following from that logic, that’s why you get so many words for it, it’s because you have already gone through the process of categorizing it in your mind with your thoughts before language was ever applied to it.

Jen Jordan: The Eskimo example makes a lot of sense to me, because it’s a condition they’re living in, or an environment where they have to have words to describe it. That doesn’t describe the Russian two blues example, because are there instances where Russians are exposed to that much color that they’re, like, “Holy cow, we need other words to describe this,” so much so, that you’re commonly taught in school the six colors of the rainbow. All the graphics you have in classrooms, everything has those six colors, you teach those. That’s what kids learn. Why is it in Russia it’s just a given that there are two different blues, a light blue and a dark blue. That’s what, I guess, where that it’s sort of a not totally equivalent. It’s an interesting contrast to bring up, but I wonder why that is the case in Russia, and maybe that’s something we can research another time. Thomas, is there anything else you wanted to add, or should we move on?

Thomas: So, John McWhorter made an argument against the blues, is that he can concede that, yes, this study does show this, and maybe, maybe, language can affect how quickly you click a color on a screen by a few milliseconds. But, his main argument against it is not so much based in … well, what does that do? Blues, you can click blues faster, that is not gonna affect anyone’s life at any point. And the larger following that he has with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and even Neo-Whorfianism is that when these headlines come up and are, like, “Why Chinese people are better at saving for the future.” It kind of is a little discriminatory, because every time you say that one group of people is better at something, it says that another group of people is worse at something. And going back to the Hopi people, it was just kind this exoticising of this Native American tribe, and, look, they don’t understand time, what a wild group of people.

Jen Jordan: Yeah, you’re extrapolating maybe one small aspect of their culture to extend to an entire culture or nation of people, which we try not to do, but sometimes we definitely read a lot about that.

Thomas: Yeah. So, a lot of what this can come down to is, I mean, basically, racism. One of our colleagues at Babbel spoke to John McWhorter and talked a little bit about Sapir-Whorf, so I will play that clip.

John McWhorter: What I worry about is the idea that if you are an Italian and have a different perspective on the world than a person who is Japanese, because of how their verbs and the nouns work, that’s the problem that I have. Because I think there’s very little evidence that that’s true. And I think that it is condescending for one thing, because where a lot of that goes is, “Oh, wow, that indigenous person is sensitive to sources of information, that indigenous person is sensitive to these shades of existence,” where, really, none of us are that impressed that the person is cognitively … it’s kind of a pat on the head involved in all of it. And then also, it’s dangerous, because some languages are just more telegraphic than others, and if you’re gonna say that all of the detailed shades of distinction in an envision of language makes them more sophisticated, mentally, than a boring English speaker in Cleveland, then, unfortunately, you’re also saying that everybody that speaks Chinese is kinda stupid. Because Chinese is a language that actually doesn’t make a lot of those sorts of differentiations and punctuation, an indigenous language might. So, I think that Sapir-Whorf is attractive to many people, I think partly because it’s a way for a Westerner to indicate that we understand that other people are cognitively advanced. It’s understandable. But it’s an insult that you risk in it, because not all languages learn themselves as well to paying that compliment as we think, so that’s what my book The Language Hoax is about.

Thomas: And that does make sense, I mean, every time we say that something is better than another thing, you as the result, and especially when the main result that we get to prove any of Sapir-Whorf is all Russians can click a blue faster, than these grand claims that eventually get filtered down into media as being bigger claims, because that’s generally what happens when scientific studies reach … no offense to the media. We are the media.

David: We love the media.

Jen Jordan: We do.

Thomas: Yeah, but when these things get inflated based on a single study, it can kind of just bolster this idea, and then it gets to the point where it’s just, you’re like, “Oh, people who speak a different language think differently, they’re different,” and you can justify, like, “Oh, they’re different, because they speak this other language.” They’re not the same, they think differently, and thus even if you’re not actively making a judgment of whether that’s better or worse, it does kind of push away a different group of people.

David: It also sets you up for the idea that to understand a different group of people, you have to go out of your way to learn their language, and that there’s nothing else about the human condition that you can relate on, because they’re so far removed from you, or they just have such different thought patterns that it’s not even worth it to try to get to know them or understand them. And maybe Sapir-Whorf has a lot of weight, that the strong version of that hypothesis, if we take it to be true, sure, people think so differently, because language shapes the way they think, but that just means that people can probably use that as an excuse to retreat back into their own xenophobia, perhaps, or their unwillingness to learn a new language, to try to understand a new culture, and I think that that is where you risk running into some of those major obstacles and categorizing people, generalizing about them, stereotyping them, because you see it as really hard to try to understand them.

Thomas: So, Jen, where do you come down at the end of this debate?

Jen Jordan: Do I have to choose a winner?

David: Yeah, you need a gavel, too.

Jen Jordan: I do, I need a little …

Thomas: Yeah, we’re gonna kill the person who lost, so where’s the sword?

Jen Jordan: I feel like I just got a linguistics degree. Is this what it feels like just learning linguistics?

Thomas: Yep. Absolutely.

David: That was four years, boiled down to…

Jen Jordan: Oh, boy.

Thomas: You just sit in your dorm room, and then you’re, like, “But what if other languages are different?”

Jen Jordan: I think there were some really interesting points. I think you brought up some interesting food for thought, Thomas. I think with David, you had some very accurate counterexamples, I felt like I could relate to some of them.

Jen Jordan: I don’t know if I totally believe in Sapir-Whorf, but …

Thomas: Damn.

Jen Jordan: … I do think. That doesn’t mean …

David: I’m over here dabbing.

Jen Jordan: … that doesn’t mean you win. Stop dabbing.

Jen Jordan: That doesn’t mean David wins by default, I think Sapir-Whorf most hypothesis are flawed, and I think that it’s interesting to think about, but not something I would take it at face value.

Jen Jordan: Multilinguish is brought to you by Babbel, the language app. Speak a new language with confidence. Lessons are lovingly created by over a hundred language experts, real people, not by a translation machine.

Jen Jordan: Hey David, what’s your favorite lesson in Babbel?

David: I had a lot of fun with one that I did just yesterday, actually. And it relates to clothing and colors, and I think that’s a really cool way to combine material, instead of just giving me a list of colors to memorize or a list of clothing items, it’s helping me put them together in context, so I can talk about me wanting to put on a pair of dirty pants or my friend stopping me from doing that, but she wants to know where her red dress is.

Jen Jordan: That’s cool, that actually sounds pretty useful.

Jen Jordan: So, we’re offering Multilinguish listeners 50 percent off a three month subscription. New customers can get this offer by visiting That’s

Jen Jordan: All right everyone, let’s talk about what we learned this week. David, I nominate you to start.

David: What I learned this week that actually really struck me was, in writing my article about South Africa, and what languages are spoken there I knew that there were 11 languages that are guaranteed protection under the Constitution as official languages, nine of which are called Bantu languages, so they are the native African languages that were on the continent before the Dutch settlers and English settlers came.

David: So, there’s a whole story in history about the fight between the Afrikaners, who spoke Afrikaans, who are largely white, but were kind of trained to protect their identity against the encroaching English who brought English with them. All of this to say that today, English is only spoken by about 10 percent of the population natively, but from my own experience, living in South Africa, I thought it would’ve been 60 or 70 percent. Most of the people that I run into or happen onto, they are speak English. And to think of English as a global phenomenon in this world language, I think South Africa is a perfect example of where that kind of takes root, and you can see it really clearly, because as Afrikaans is associated with, sort of, white nationalism, that kind of drove, the Africana movement, that ultimately led to apartheid, there have been a lot of movements to kind of reduce the effect of Afrikaans in societies as a whole and bolster the status of other languages, like the Native African ones, but English too. And so, you can really see, even though 90 percent of the population of South Africa doesn’t speak English natively, most people know it, because it’s just so popular, and it’s an alternative to speaking Afrikaans, which has such a story of history that’s tied up with apartheid, and discrimination and oppression.

Jen Jordan: Interesting.

Thomas: Interesting.

Jen Jordan: Very cool.

David: Not fun.

Jen Jordan: Well, fun, but interesting. And how long were you in South Africa for?

David: For one semester.

Jen Jordan: So, a few months.

David: So, a few months, and then I went back for two weeks last year.

Jen Jordan: Awesome.

David: Yeah.

Jen Jordan: Steph, what did you lean this week?

Steph: Well, in the process of putting together some suggestions for people … so, the whole premise of this article was, we’re all really busy. Sometimes even 20 minutes a day is too much to ask for maintaining a consistent language-learning habit. And so the whole idea was to break it down into chunks of, if you have one minute, here’s what you could still accomplish, if you have five minutes, here’s what you could still accomplish. And I guess because we so often, we sort of promote this idea that a Babbel lesson takes 15 minutes a day, and that’s all you really need, but it kind of really drove home the idea that even if you’re not doing a whole lesson, you can still keep the momentum going in your practice, and that was kind of enlightening for me to think about in that way, because say you have 10 minutes, and maybe you can’t do a full Babbel lesson, but you can still learn seven new vocabulary words, because that is the scientifically proven amount of new information that your brain can adjust at a time.

Jen Jordan: Wait, what’s the scientifically …

Steph: Seven new pieces of information.

Jen Jordan: Interesting.

Thomas: So, like the short-term memory thing?

Steph: Yeah. Or you could watch a YouTube video, or just something. Even if you have one minute, you could still blow through a stack of flash cards, and just review things that you already learned.

Jen Jordan: I wrote extensive notes for myself. So, we just booked our travel for Berlin. Well, most of us have. David.

Dylan: Get on it!

Jen Jordan: I’m publicly shaming you now. And I’m traveling solo to Paris.

Steph: Oh, that’s exciting.

Jen Jordan: I haven’t been there in 10 years. Yeah, I’m actually really excited about going alone, because I haven’t been in 10 years, and French is the language I studied in middle school and high school, so even though I’m not good at it, it has the most familiarity, I guess. It’s sort of ingrained. I’ve heard more of it, I’ve spent more time studying the grammatical parts of it and kind of understanding it, so I’m brushing up on French in Babbel now — that’s my sole focus. And I’ve been reading about how to get better at French from our friends in didactics in linguistics in Berlin.

Jen Jordan: So, an article I read this week is talking about the hardest parts of learning French and the easiest parts of learning French. The good news is, 45 percent of words in English actually come from French, which is crazy high, actually. It’s, like, 80,000 words are shared, have a root that’s shared, because so much …

Steph: That is so much more than I thought.

Jen Jordan: It’s so much more, yeah, I mean, they said 80,000, I don’t know how they’re counting how many words are in each language, that just seems like a tricky business, but they’re saying 45 percent because obviously they’re both Latin languages, but also there’s a lot of shared history when you’re talking about … even the word “culture” itself comes from French. But you’re talking about economics in politics and culture and all of those words are essentially, in a lot of ways, come from French. So, there’s a lot of words that I know already, which is great. The hardest part is obviously pronunciation. French is notoriously difficult. And, basically, my strategy is whenever I’m ordering something or getting around is just to mumble the ending, so I never learn how to conjugate anything, and I can hopefully be understood if I just intonate correctly. Thomas, what did you learn this week?

Thomas: So, I did a bunch of BB little stories on colors. Color words.

Steph: BB?

Thomas: Yeah, little BBs.

Steph: I never heard anyone say that out loud.

Dylan: BB.

Jen Jordan: Text speak, IRL.

Thomas: Anyway, so, basically, where words that we have colors come from, and some of them are boring, ’cause they’ve just been around so long, but they’ve done studies that cultures develop different color words every time, black, white, and red are the first color words that they get, so those all go back to Proto-Indo-European, but some come along …

Jen Jordan: Wait, why are they the first words that we have?

Thomas: Just because that’s how it happens. ‘Cause your first distinction …

Jen Jordan: That’s fine, I guess.

Steph: It starts out like a Teletubby show, where you just link consciousness.

Thomas: The first distinctions you’re gonna make is between light and dark, so then the next thing is just your brain hooks onto red. So, those came very early, but other colors that we think of just as intrinsic to our language just come later on. Like, orange. Which came first, the fruit or the color?

Jen Jordan: Obviously, the fruit.

Thomas: Well, you got it.

Jen Jordan: I mean, right? Why else would you need to describe … well, this is orange, except for Babbel.

Steph: Except for Thomas.

Thomas: I know.

Jen Jordan: He’s a redhead.

Thomas: Yeah, well, the reason why they’re called redheads is because the red word came around first. Anyway …

Jen Jordan: Well, Dylan, what did you learn this week?

Dylan: All right, so we’re gonna take a little turn. So, I looked into crystals.

Jen Jordan: Finally, somebody researched this.

Dylan: Jen has been asking for this forever, and, so, here we are.

Jen Jordan: Nobody cares about crystals anymore.

Dylan: Yeah, it’s been a while. Basically, I looked into healing crystals and whether they could help with language learning in any way. And the short answer is if you believe in crystals, they can help with anything, because scientists believe that they largely have a placebo effect, so, basically, if you believe that they’re helping you, then they can actually be beneficial. There are crystals that are said to be better for certain things, like memory, focus, communication, all things that can relate to language learning. I went to a local crystal shop, here in New York City, called Rock Star Crystals, and I spoke with the assistant manager, who gave his name is Emerald, which is definitely his real name. And he recommended a few specific crystals, including clear quartz, which is really good for clearing bad thoughts, restoring memories, and purifying the aura.

Jen Jordan: That seems convenient, given it’s a clear rock.

Dylan: Yes, it does.

Steph: A lot of the sort of association’s do derive from the colors.

Dylan: Yeah, that’s true.

Dylan: And then he also recommended purple amethyst, which is also good for memory, it’s good for vision, and mental health in general. And finally, fluorite, which is actually considered a crystal of the mind, and it’s said to improve mental focus. No. It’s good for your brain.

Jen Jordan: Fluorite’s the green one, right?

Dylan: It’s multicolored, but it has a hint of turquoise, I guess.

Thomas: Is that the one that’s in our drinking water?

Jen Jordan: Oh, Thomas.

Dylan: That’s fluoride! It’s actually the mineral form of calcium fluoride.

Jen Jordan: Okay.

Thomas: Well, then it is!

Dylan: Anyway, the point is, as we’ve talked about with ASMR, hypnotism, all these different things, they’re not directly gonna implant language vocab in your brain, but they can possibly help with other things that sort of indirectly help with language learning.

Thomas: And they make your teeth stronger.

Jen Jordan: All right, everyone, well this has been fun.

Thomas: Yes.

Jen Jordan: Thank you.

Jen Jordan: Multilinguish is produced by the content team at Babbel. We are …

Thomas: Thomas Moore Devlin.

David: David Doochin.

Steph: Steph Koyfman.

Dylan: Dylan Lyons.

Jen Jordan: And I’m Jen Jordan.

Jen Jordan: Ruben Vilas makes us sound good. Our logo is designed by Ally Zhao. You can read more about this episode’s topic and even more on Babbel magazine. Just visit Say hi on social media by finding us @babbelusa, all one word. Finally, if you like what you heard, please rate interview this podcast. We really appreciate it.

Jen Jordan: Is it Sapir or Sapier, like tapir?

Thomas: I think that it’s Sapier.

David: I think it’s Sa-pee …

Thomas: I’m gonna do a mix.

David: Do Sapeers.

Jen Jordan: Let’s debate about it, guys.

Thomas: Sapir-Whorf pronunciation.

David: You should just mumble every time you have to say it.

Jen Jordan: Sapier.

David: So, that [mumbling] hypothesis, tell me more about that.

Computer: Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

Jen Jordan: Sapir?

David: I don’t trust that.

David: Well, it did just say that.

Jen Jordan: Yeah, that sounds made up.

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