Linguistic relativism entered my consciousness this week, and I was immediately reminded of this almost five-year-old article from the New York Times Magazine. It’s worth a read, but the discussion I’m borrowing is on gendered nouns. You see, a fork in Spanish is el tenedor, masculine, while it is la forchetta, feminine, in Italian. It’s reversed for the spoon — la cuchara in Spanish, and il cucchiaio in Italian. (Isn’t that just a quintessential Italian word?) Monolingual speakers of each language show a strong association between grammatical and biological gender when such inanimate objects are voiced, indicating that language certainly plays a role in how we perceive our surroundings.
But how would a bilingual child choose? This article from Concordia University reviews the curious results from a study on children’s essentialist beliefs. If you’ve spent any time around small children, you know that their thinking is pretty simplistic. In this study, the researchers asked monolingual and bilingual children whether an adopted child would speak the language of his biological or adopted parents. Similarly, they asked about how a duck would behave if it was raised by dogs. While the monolinguals predictably stuck with the “nature” of the thing for both the adopted child and the duck, the bilinguals swung to the opposite extreme, believing that each would take on “nurtured” qualities, even acquiring fur instead of feathers.
I can only speculate that the child in our spoon-fork scenario would assign gender based on the language in which they were asked. Another study from Science Magazine here talks about how different languages call attention to different features in conversation, and that bilinguals have the advantage of leveraging each language to their purpose. For example, the structure of German more or less requires specific beginning and end points when describing past events, while the fluidity of English allows for more emphasis on the action itself. German-English speakers, not surprisingly, can adapt in a native-like way to either structure based on the language they’re speaking.
The question of whether language influences our thinking is a non-issue for me. The main thing that captures my mind is how language influences bilinguals, and research studies like these will continue to expand our knowledge on the topic.
Perhaps our child would want to know what language the spoon and fork speak. I can only guess.