The Fallacy of Linguistic Determinism in Intellectual Discussion and Classroom Learning
Linguistic determinism, a century-old concept introduced by Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf, has regained its currency in today’s globalizing institutions where people from different linguistic and cultural traditions engage in intellectual exchanges, and where members who value diversity, equity, and inclusion are increasingly critical of how certain established systems, including language, may have played a role in privileging dominant groups at the expense of the marginalized. Languages are by no means transparent, and linguistic limitations can pose barriers to intellectual exchanges, especially where contentious topics are debated. This essay shall examine the strategies to overcome those constraints, as well as explain how unreservedly and unquestioningly embracing linguistic determinism is risky and irresponsible, as it would be tantamount to a denial of our agency and responsibility as members of a community.
Linguistic determinism, a theory first introduced by Sapir and Whorf in the early 20th century, holds that differences in languages and their structures determine people’s thought processes and interactions with the world around them. Whereas Sapir and Whorf’s theory was attacked for being too extreme, a much milder form called “linguistic relativism” — languages merely influence, not determine, how humans think and interact with the world — has been agreed upon by many psycholinguists. Nonetheless, a deterministic view of language, just like any extreme worldview, can — and is — often evoked in emotionally driven narratives and dialogues that are prevalent in today’s public sphere.
Examples of linguistic determinism/relativism frequently include the Eskimos’ multiple words for “snow,” which reflects the importance of snow and ice in their environment, and the Japanese’s use of different forms of addresses to indicate the speakers’ relationships to the addressees, which indicates the importance of social hierarchy in Japan. Without a doubt, new words, or the popularization of old words, also provide novel ways to understand reality. A relatable everyday example is the recent popularization of the word “bullying” in fields as varied as education, psychology, and social work. For years, before the word became popular, many people who were snubbed or deliberately isolated by their peers might not have been able to make sense of the actions, which were hurtful but fell short of physical attacks or harassment. The entry of “bullying” in the common lexicon has enabled former victims to give a name to the hurtful conduct and make better sense of their negative experiences.
Reality is complex and infinite, and language continues to evolve to capture it. Notwithstanding its biases and constraints, is language an effective, if not empowering, tool of communication? I recall that even as a child, writing diaries had a calming effect despite my limited vocabulary. In my adulthood, writing has continued to enable me to sort out my thoughts and feelings, to give form to abstract ideas, and to make sense of complex events. Years ago, when I shared my thoughts on the power of language, a former law professor of mine, one with impeccable academic credentials no less, tried to counter my views by affirming the idea, held by my classmates and likely also by many sophisticated intellectuals, that language is restrictive and often hinders people from understanding reality or developing complex ideas.
Linguistic determinism/relativism has at least two implications for the university. First, linguistic differences may impact learning in a multicultural classroom where students have different mother tongues, linguistic differences, and worldviews. Concepts that are familiar to or even taken for granted by users of certain languages may be unheard of, or at least less familiar, to those of other languages. More important, linguistic differences may have led to fundamental differences in their perceptions of reality, which pose a challenge to classroom learning, especially where contentious topics are concerned.
Second, even in a class of monolingual learners, some regard language itself as a historical institution that privileges the powerful at the expense of the marginalized. According to this logic, any discussion and debate held in a language would be unproductive, if not futile. What appears to be a valid, thought-provoking concept thus carries undesirable and far-reaching implications. There are nonetheless strategies to overcome these potential hurdles.
"Linguistic differences may impact learning in a multicultural classroom where students have different mother tongues, linguistic differences, and worldviews."
Regarding linguistic differences in a multicultural classroom, users can rise above the biases and limitations of languages, even if they continue to think — or occasionally speak — in those languages (for example, where those languages are their mother tongues), to engage in productive exchanges. There is one precondition: The discussion and intellectual engagement must take place in a university environment that is reasonably tolerant of differences and that encourages exchanges. This is possible only in a functional democracy.
In Western legal traditions, “rule of law” and “rule by law” are distinct concepts. The former is guided by the fundamental principles of justice and ensures that the law applies to all and that nobody is above the law. The latter merely creates a facade of orderliness and enables the powerful to weaponize the law to oppress the masses. In both written and spoken Mandarin and Cantonese, both “rule of law” and “rule by law” are commonly referred to as fa zhi/faat ji (Mandarin) or fa guan/faat gwoon (Cantonese) and therefore are conflated into a single term. One can easily surmise that the conflation of two distinct concepts in any authoritarian society would easily lead to confusion. Worse still, not only can the law become a tool of oppression, but any attempt to understand legal justice and reform the legal system would be frustrated.
Yet it is possible — even easy — to distinguish the two concepts in Chinese. In the Liberal Studies program, which was an essential part of Hong Kong’s senior secondary school curriculum for more than a decade, teenagers learned, in their mother tongue Cantonese, that fast i can be unpacked further: “Rule of law” really means “using the law to achieve justice” (yi faat daat yi) and needs to be distinguished from “rule by law,” which essentially means “using the law to rule” (yi faat gwoon ji). The former is one of the cornerstones of a civil society, whereas the latter enables the worst abuses of the legal system. The program was unfortunately but quite foreseeably blamed by the establishment for pro-democracy activism and large-scale “chaos,” and therefore closed in 2021. Nonetheless, this great example shows that users of a language can rise above its linguistic limitations for productive exchange and intellectual engagement.
Unintelligibility and misunderstanding may happen between not only users of Chinese and Western languages but also those belonging to the same language groups. English and German are both Germanic languages. My experience teaching German and American law students informed me that due to the different legal cultures of these two jurisdictions, certain legal terms in one jurisdiction may not be fully or immediately understood and appreciated by students in the other jurisdiction. Most Americans have heard of the word “dignity” and, due to the relatively small role it historically played in the American legal landscapes, may come up with vastly different as well as loose understandings and interpretations of it. This was a cultural shock and even a cause of frustration to German students because Menschenwürde, translated as “human dignity,” is widely used in German philosophy, ethics, and political science and, due to the history of the country, is codified in its Constitution. To many of them, dignity is a concept both important and distinct. Although it may not have an exact equivalence in the English language, and even none in the American legal tradition, a simple explanation that it refers to the “sanctity of life” or “security of person,” and denotes the “inalienable autonomy of human beings,” will help American students begin their journey with a much fuller understanding of the concept in the German/European context and its moral relevance to all humans.
While the word “obscenity” and what are known as “obscene” materials are familiar to Americans and especially American legal practitioners and students, the direct equivalent — obszön — appears nowhere in the German law. German criminal law no doubt prohibits certain pornographic materials. While my German students are familiar with pornography and even different types of it, they found the word “obscene” in a legal context somewhat perplexing. However, the unfamiliarity of German students with the concept would not obstruct their learning process, as long as a detailed explanation of “obscenity” is provided. That needs to include the current legal test for obscenity in America, the types of materials prohibited under American law, as well as the rationale for their prohibition, to help the German students understand that things society considers to be lacking in value and offensive enough to be prohibited are not limited to sexual materials.
"Some people’s beliefs that language itself is so full of inherent biases and constraints have led them to a pessimistic position that undermines classroom learning, academic freedom, and democratic governance."
Linguistic determinism is not an issue raised only in a multilingual/multicultural setting: It can happen in a class or university consisting entirely of native English speakers. Quite unfortunately and alarmingly, some people’s beliefs that language itself — rather than specific languages — is so full of inherent biases and constraints have led them to a pessimistic position that undermines classroom learning, academic freedom, and democratic governance.
In recent years, some academics and students have attempted to prevent invited speakers who hold controversial views from speaking. They try to “deplatform” speakers on the shaky premise that discussions on contentious topics, no matter how rational, informed, and devoid of academic jargons they seem to be, can take place only within a linguistic and cultural context that favors the powerful and privileged and leads to the oppression of disadvantaged and marginalized groups. However, rather than seeking a better way to engage with different opinions, they engage in disruptive, at times violent, actions on campuses that shut down dialogues altogether. This happened, for example, when some academics and students tried to “cancel” debates on pronoun laws and policies, giving the reason that language reinforces the existing gender hierarchy and is therefore oppressive to transgender people. Not all those who are skeptical of language try to shut down offensive speech. Some passively refrain from classroom discussion, which is damaging as it contravenes the Enlightenment tradition of rational debates no less.
Even if we assume that the inherent biases and constraints in language and mainstream discourse unfairly disadvantage certain groups, a productive strategy would be to identify potential biases while coining new terms and words to express one’s ideas. This, too, can and should take place within the context of rational debate. Blaming language and giving up on dialogues altogether, on the other hand, is not only self-defeating and betrays the unwillingness to stand up to challenges — it is utterly irresponsible and anti-Enlightenment.
All in all, the idea that language contains biases and influences the way we understand reality is valuable and is relatable to many of us. Linguistic determinism, when embraced fully and unreservedly, denies humans of their agency and responsibility and, ultimately, their humanity. An awareness of the constraints of languages should propel us to rise above them, to attempt to understand the pros and cons of different linguistic systems, and to find new and better ways to communicate complex ideas, rather than to demonize people who use them or give up on productive dialogues and the Enlightenment tradition.
Your generosity supports our non-partisan efforts to advance the principles of open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement to improve higher education and academic research.