Abstract: The Sapir–Whorf hypothesis is an important theory for exploring the relationship between language and thoughts, and culture. It is a theory of great significance in linguistics in the last century. As a core part of the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, “language determines thought” has not received much attention from the Chinese academic community. This paper attempts to explore the enlightenment and guiding significance of the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis to Chinese foreign language teaching and foreign language learning from the perspective of language shapes thought, in order to improve the development of foreign language teaching in China and foster a better foreign language learning, in aid of achieving a cross-cultural communication.
The Sapir–Whorf hypothesis is the doctrine put forward by linguist Edward Sapir and his student Benjamin Whorf. The hypothesis includes two aspects: 1) language determinism, that is, language determines thought, belief, attitude, etc., nations of different languages have different ways of thinking, this is the strong form of the hypothesis; 2) linguistic relativity, that is, language reflects thought belief, attitude, etc. Language influences thinking, which is a weak version of the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis. Sapir (1929) believes, in the world we live in, “no two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached”. In short, thought and reality change with respect to the language of the speaker as the “language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation”. From this point of view, language is a social sign-system, a medium for human expression, and language forms affect the language users' views on the world. Since language is influenced by many factors such as historical geography, customs, values and other factors, the diverse language in turn affects the mode of thinking of different nationalities, resulting in a distinct perception of the same world.
The Sapir–Whorf hypothesis is the inheritance and development of the study of the relationship between language and thought, which indicates that people's research on this issue has been further deepened. Although the viewpoint of the structure of language determines or greatly influences the modes of thought has not been confirmed, it has been widely discussed and accepted by the linguistic community. This paper in particular discusses foreign language teaching and learning on the ground of this hypothesis. Language does affect our way of thinking, but it does not determine human’s thought; the differences between languages are limited, and cross-language understanding is achievable. This provides a good direction and guidance for the teaching and learning of foreign language in China.
For one thing, the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis gives us the inspiration to "teach" foreign languages. From the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, it can be known that language is a special part of culture. Therefore, it is necessary for teachers to cover cultural input to students in foreign language teaching. Cultural input is only an extension and supplement to the content of traditional foreign language teaching, and it should be carried out within the framework of language teaching. It can be based on the historical knowledge of the target language country, the basic common sense shared by the members of the target language country, and the language convention of the target language society, cultural practices, and other elements beyond the verbal language, such as expressions, gestures, body language and so on. Secondly, when teachers teach foreign languages, it is inevitable to involve a comparison between the target language culture and their own culture. By such comparison, it can not only help learners to better understand the target language culture, but also deepen the impression and promote the language itself with culture. The learning can start from different cultural connotations at the vocabulary level, different cultural backgrounds at the idiom level, different grammar application rules at the syntactic level, and different usage styles at the discourse level.
Besides, the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis is about the enlightenment of "learning" foreign languages. Learners learn and know more about the mindset of this language while mastering a new language. The cognitive and mental deficiencies caused by one language will be compensated to some extent after learning another language. The impact of language on maths calculation skills is a good example. The numerical system in Chinese is orderly structured, such as the multiplication table. There is no such numerical law in the expression of English, so the native English speakers have a relatively slower calculation than a person whose native language is Chinese. What’s more, students should be clear about the differences between the mode of thought in mother tongue and the foreign language, and actively transform into a foreign language mode of thought during the learning process. For example, some people in the West avoid topics that involve personal privacy which Chinese people are accustomed to: the Chinese often start a conversation with "did you eat?” or "where are you going?", while Westerners use "how are you?" and "nice to meet you." Chinese people often talk about work and salary, while Westerners talk about public events and personal interests. Students can train from all levels of the language to enhance the formation of foreign language thinking patterns, which in turn reinforce their foreign language learning. For example, there are different phenomena in the lexical level of the connotation and extension of words in English and Chinese. At the syntactic level, there are the phenomenon that English uses more passive sentences and Chinese uses more active sentences. English adopts deductive method and Chinese follows an induction method in discourse organisation. Lastly, foreign language learners themselves must enhance their awareness of cultural learning. Learning foreign languages is not only about learning the content of the language itself, but also understanding and grasping the culture carried by the language, overcoming the psychological state of cultural incompatibility, and making the profound cultural heritage counteract the learning of language content. For example, the Hans emphasise subjective consciousness, while the English-speaking ethnicities emphasise objective consciousness; the Hans maintain esprit de corps and the traditional family concept and the English-speaking ethnicities pay attention to individualism and independent thought.