Languages vary in the information they convey due to cross-linguistic differences in the structure of linguistic information. According to the Whorfian hypothesis (Whorf, 1956), these cross-linguistic differences can affect speakers’ cognitive processes (e.g., perception, memory, categorization).
One linguistic feature that demonstrates distinct cross-linguistic differences is gender marking. For example, English speakers commonly code gender of the referent when using third person pronouns (she/he). The same is true of Polish, but in addition to gender information on pronouns, Polish also uses systematic gender information in surnames, job titles and other human descriptors (in a similar way an English speaker makes a distinction between, e.g., actor vs. actress, but for all occupations, whereas most are gender-neutral in English (e.g., accountant). On the other hand, Finnish does not systematically distinguish between males and females in human descriptors, and Finnish uses a gender-neutral animate pronoun ‘hän’ when referring to males and females. Thus, when referring to animate entities, syntactically, Finnish encodes human referents more like ‘people’ rather than men/women.
These linguistic differences make these three languages (English, Finnish, Polish) ideal test cases for investigations as to whether linguistic differences affect cognitive processes. The fact that Polish, and English to a lesser extent, necessitates its speakers to pay attention to gender information and to retain this information in order to talk about human referents, Polish and English speakers may expend more cognitive resources processing and retaining gender information than Finnish speakers, who can omit this information.
In addition to monolingual speakers (e.g., Bylund & Athanasopoulos, 2017; Fausey & Boroditsky, 2011; Kirjavainen, Kite & Piasecki, 2020), studies investigating bilingual/second language speakers have shown Whorfian effects (e.g., Athanasopoulos, 2006; Borodistky, 2001; Cook, et al., 2006). These studies suggest that if the speaker’s first and second language differ in relation to a particular linguistic construction, the acquisition of a second language can change the speaker’s cognitive processes. Thus, a native Finnish speaker who also speaks and frequently uses English or Polish might put more cognitive resources to gender information than a monolingual Finnish speaker because the frequent use of a more gendered language (English or Polish) might result in changes in the native Finnish-speaker’s cognitive processing. However, the differences between monolingual and bilingual speakers in experimental settings might not only relate to the acquisition of a second language, but the bilingual speakers’ performance can also be affected by the language used (e.g. Finnish vs. English) in the test situation, the former language indicating that the gender related Whorfian effect found is not language specific (because the Finnish test situation does not necessitate the participant to pay as much attention to gender as they might if tested in English). In addition, there may be cultural reasons for different group’s behaviour, e.g., a Finnish-English speaker living in England vs. Finland might show different behaviour, which might be due to cultural differences between England and Finland.
In the planned study, we will present participants with a series of photos in which a male or female person is performing an activity related to an occupation (e.g., a male playing the piano, a female teaching in a classroom). A memory test will follow in which participants will be asked about the gender of the people they viewed, e.g., “What did you see? A male teacher or a female teacher?” We aim to examine whether the degree to which gender is embedded in one’s language impacts the likelihood that gender is remembered. We will also examine the effect of (a) native language and second language learned later in life, (b) language used in the test situation (Finnish (gender neutral) vs. English/Polish (gendered)) and (c) exposure to culture on people’s cognitive processes and the social construal of other individuals as simply ‘people’ or as men/women.
Athanasopoulos, P. (2006). Effects of the grammatical representation of number on cognition in bilinguals. Bilingualism, 9(1), 89.
Boroditsky, L. (2001). Does language shape thought?: Mandarin and English speakers' conceptions of time. Cognitive Psychology, 43(1), 1-22.
Bylund, E., & Athanasopoulos, P. (2017). The Whorfian time warp: Representing duration through the language hourglass. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 146(7), 911.
Cook, V., Bassetti, B., Kasai, C., Sasaki, M., & Takahashi, J. A. (2006). Do bilinguals have different concepts? The case of shape and material in Japanese L2 users of English. International Journal of Bilingualism, 10(2), 137-152.
Fausey, C. M., & Boroditsky, L. (2011). Who dunnit? Cross-linguistic differences in eye-witness memory. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 18(1), 150-157.
Kirjavainen, M., Kite, Y. & Piasecki, A. E. (2020). The effect of language-specific characteristics on English and Japanese speakers’ ability to recall number information. Cognitive Science, 44(12), e12923.
Whorf, B. L. (1956). Language, thought, and reality (Edited by John B. Carroll). New York: John Wiley and Sons.