An academic dissertation for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy at Stockholm University by Guillermo Montero Melis was publicly defended on Saturday 10 June 2017, at 13:00 in Nordenskiöldsalen, Geovetenskapens hus, Svante Arrhenius väg 12, Stockholm.

Download the thesis from DiVA (Academic Archive On-line)

Abstract

This thesis is about whether language affects thinking. It deals with the linguistic relativity hypothesis, which proposes that the language we speak influences the way we think. This hypothesis is investigated in the domain of caused motion (e.g., ‘The man rolled the tyre into the garage’), by looking at Spanish and Swedish, two languages that show striking differences in how motion events are encoded. The thesis consists of four studies. The first two focus on native speakers of Spanish and Swedish. Study I compares how Spanish and Swedish speakers describe the same set of caused motion events, directing the spotlight at how variable the descriptions are in each language. The results confirm earlier findings from semantic typology regarding the dominant ways of expressing the events in each language: Spanish behaves like a verb-framed language and Swedish like a satellite-framed language (Talmy, 2000). Going beyond previous findings, the study demonstrates—using the tools of entropy and Monte Carlo simulations—that there is markedly more variability in Spanish than in Swedish descriptions. Study II tests whether differences in how Spanish and Swedish speakers describe caused motion events are reflected in how they think about such events. Using a novel similarity arrangement task, it is found that Spanish and Swedish speakers partly differ in how they represent caused motion events if they can access language during the task. However, the differences disappear when the possibility to use language is momentarily blocked by an interference task. The last two studies focus on Swedish learners of Spanish as a second language (L2). Study III explores how Swedish learners (compared to native Spanish speakers) adapt their Spanish motion descriptions to recently encountered input. Using insights from the literature on structural priming, we find that Swedish learners initially expect to encounter in their L2, Spanish, those verb types that are typical in Swedish (manner verbs like ‘roll’) but that, with increasing proficiency, their expectations become increasingly attuned to the typical Spanish pattern of using path verbs (like ‘enter’).  These expectations are reflected in the way L2 learners adapt their own production to the Spanish input. Study IV asks whether recent linguistic experience in an L2 can affect how L2 learners think about motion events. It is found that encountering motion descriptions in the L2 that emphasize different types of information (path or manner) leads L2 speakers to perceive similarity along different dimensions in a subsequent similarity arrangement task. Taken together, the thesis argues that the study of the relation between language and thought affords more valuable insights when not posed as an either-or question (i.e., does language affect thought or not?). In this spirit, the thesis contributes to the wider aim of investigating the conditions under which language does or does not affect thought and explores what the different outcomes tell us about language, thought, and the intricate mechanisms that relate them.

Opponent

Professor Barbara C. Malt, Lehigh University, USA.

Supervisors

Professor Emanuel Bylund, Centre for Research on Bilingualism, Department of Swedish Language and Multilingualism, Stockholm University.
Professor T. Florian Jaeger, University of Rochester, USA.
Reader Henriëtte Hendriks, University of Cambridge, UK.
Professor Lars Fant, Department of Romance Studies and Classics, Stockholm University.