Cognitive Psychology: Language and Cognition

By: Dr. Susan Siegfried, Clinical Psychology

There is a significant amount of evidence that supports the hypothesis that language has an effect on the way in which we think and/or on the way in which we perceive the world. More than language, we are really talking about linguistics. Linguistics is the field concerned with characterizing our linguistic competence, which is our abstract knowledge about the structure of language. This is different from the psychologist’s concern with language performance, which is how we use language. We will be combining both for the purposes of this paper. It has been debated for a long time whether language is dependent on thought or whether thought is dependent on language or whether they work independently.

History of Linguistics

Knowing whether language is really a system different from human cognition began with John Watson’s (1930) explanation that all humans did was to emit responses that had been conditioned by stimuli. Watson thought thinking was just sub-vocal speech. It was this belief that stimulated research in the field. Whorfian (1956) followed with this belief in language determinism. He said that language determines or strongly influences the way a person thinks or perceives the world. He said that a rich variety of terms would cause the speaker of the language to perceive the world differently from a person who had only a single word for a particular concept. Present day evidence finds Whorfian to be closer than was Watson but today we know it is just not that simple.

There is a lot of evidence that shows that people’s ability to think was present before the ability to use language evolved. On the other side of the argument we know that propositional structures constitute an important type of knowledge structure representing information that comes from language and pictures. Every language has a phrase structure and it is the phrase units of language that tend to convey propositions. This really is an evolutionary concept as to what came first, since both are dependent on each other it is not necessary to know which came first to know thinking and language are connected. What we know is that language and knowledge are interconnected.

Acquisition of Language.

Humans beings begin learning language before birth. We know that children learn grammar first before they start learning words. The child has a center in the brain just for learning language. It is universal so it can learn any language that is modeled for the child. It is shortly after birth that the child begins to develop and learn how to use its vocal chords and mouth formation to reproduce sounds, that stage being “babbling”. Somewhere around one year the child will speak its first word. By the second birthday the child has a vocabulary of about 50 words, by the age of three or somewhere in the third year of life the child is speaking in full sentences.  It is before the age of four years that the area in the brain designed to learn language begins to be used by other synaptic connection until it is completely reclaimed.  That is why it is easy for a child to learn language and harder for an adult. By four years, language is found throughout the brain. It is the only one of our human processes that can be found in many areas in the brain.

Language and Cognition

Language is learned implicitly indicating that cognition has a need for language.  It is not something like reading that is schooled later. It has been argued that children’s acquisition of language is guided by innate knowledge about the possible forms of natural language. While human languages do obey certain regularities called universals, it is unclear whether these universals reflect language-specific knowledge of constraints imposed by the nature of cognition generally.

Until about thirty years ago we had no idea of how cognition and language worked together. It is now clear that language and thought work together and at this point in our evolution cannot be separated. The theory of linguistic relativity states that the differences among languages result in similar differences in how people think about and perceive the world. We know for example that Eskimos have dozens of words for snow because their survival depends on it. Research now indicates that language does influence out thinking and is beginning to show that it can influence our personalities.

We know that what we say to our children repeatedly changes their behavior and even their image of themselves.  Psychologists have known for a long time that our self- talk (what we say to ourselves about ourselves) changes out behavior and our perception of the world. This is a staple in cognitive therapy.  With the onset of PET scans we can watch were language is processed in the brain.  Processing is different for men and women, however, in both cases the processing involves our memory and knowledge portions of the brain. We learned early that language is used for problem solving in all people indicating Language is a necessary part of higher level cognition. It appears that language is essential in brain processing both in storage and retrieval. It seems to be that language is another of the uniquely human qualities that allows us the brain capacity of which we have not yet seen the limits.


Keith Alan (2001,), Natural Language Semantics, Blackwell Publishers Ltd, Oxford.

Alan Cruse (2004, p.), Meaning in Language. An Introduction to Semantics and Pragmatics. Second Edition, Oxford University Press, New York