Master Teaching

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Linguistic Relativity and Spiritual Transformation

linguistic relativityThe Sapir-Whorf hypothesis suggests an inextricable connection between language, thought, and culture. In its strongest form, called linguistic determinism, both language and thought are determined by culture.[1] In other words, the concepts that are important in a given culture will produce language to express them, which will cement those concepts in the thinking of the members of that culture.

Linguistic determinism has very few adherents remaining, but the weaker form of the hypothesis, known as linguistic relativism, has far-reaching implications. In this version, a person’s worldview is shaped by the particular language that s/he speaks.[2]

Thus, an implication of the Whorfian hypothesis is that to learn another language is to be “reshaped.” Learning to interact in another culture, particularly one that does not share your native tongue, involves much more than acquiring a new grammar system or a set of vocabulary. It also involves learning new ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving.[3]

This reshaping sounds precisely like spiritual transformation to me. Kathleen Norris wrote about this change as “a daily and lifelong process…no more spectacular than learning to love the people we live with and work among…seeing ourselves, and the ordinary people in our families, our classrooms, and on the job, in a new light.”

“Can it be,” Norris asks, “that these very people—even the difficult, unbearable ones—are the ones [Yahweh] has given us, so that together we might” be transformed?[4]

Vygotsky, the theorist who put forth the ZPD, claimed that social interaction precedes cognitive development and language. Therefore, a person needs sustained, stimulating interactions with other people in order to reach potential for both cognitive development and language production.[5] The group of people that nurture one another in this way is called a community of practice.

This description suits the body. A group of people that nurture one another towards spiritual maturity is a community of practice. Further, the practice is “incarnational; it is worked out by each individual within the community of faith.”[6]

It is fascinating that language and theories designed to talk about one aspect of human development can be transferred into others with the result of expanding understanding. This confirms the holistic nature of a person, and more importantly the intimate presence and inexhaustible involvement of Yahweh.

[1] Marianne Celce-Murcia (2001). Teaching English as a Second or Foreign Language, p. 269.
[2] H. Douglas Brown (2014). Principles of Language Learning and Teaching, p. 42.
[3] Brown, p. 184.
[4] Kathleen Norris (1998). Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, p. 44.
[5] Brown, p. 42.
[6] Norris, p. 42.

Further exploration

What’s your perspective?

  • What community of practice has reshaped you?
  • What’s a favorite learning theory, and how does it connect to your faith?

Post Author

Kimberly Todd


Photo Credit: [ S H A M S ] via Compfight cc


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This entry was posted on February 10, 2016 by in favorite theories, Kimberly Todd, linguistic relativity.



Photo Credit: Eric Fischer via Compfight cc
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