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Theory Information

Linguistic Determinism suggests that one's language determines the ways one's mind constructs categories. First introduced by Edward Sapir and expanded by his student Benjamin Lee Worf, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis proposed that language patterns lead to different patterns in thought (Ting-Toomey and Korzenny 1988). A more accepted notion of the relationship between language and thought is that while interrelated, neither language nor culture creates a direct causal link to the other. In everyday terms, we hear and experience that the words we use influence our interactions with others and yet, not having the same native language, do not always prevent us from understanding one another. This influence of language on culture is called Linguistic Relativism. More recently, Robert Kaplan (1988) has researched the ways in which language and culture influence narrative construction and posited that our first language (mother tongue) has a powerful influence on the way we shape our thoughts and organize our ideas. He describes linear, circular, metaphoric, argument/rebuttal styles, etc. and associates these with particular language groups.


Presentations, publications, and other forms of campus communication should take into account the cultural connotations associated with various word choices. Additionally, language comprehension and usage for many nonnative speakers is often listed as one of the strongest barriers for feeling academically and socially competent in host countries and can be directly tied to self-segregation or isolationist practices.

Programs that are "connected" to Linguistic Determinism/Relativism theories meet one or more of the following criteria:

  • Provide ways to develop and maximize abilities in the host language.
  • Address language in holistic ways (i.e., the linguistic, para-linguistic, and extra-linguistic components).
  • Focus on language, as well as appropriate interactional behaviors.
  • Explore how language is shaped by culture and vice-versa.
  • Explore varying communicative styles of the host language and the social factors that trigger the use of one or another (e.g, context, attributes of interlocutors, topic, etc.).
  • Explore how languages differ and what they share in common.
  • Highlight similarities and differences across world views.
Reflections Alvino Fantini
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