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Thinking and Language

The Big Picture: Chapter Overview

Williams syndrome, a genetic disorder that involves impaired reading and writing but enhanced verbal and interpersonal skills, offers insights into the factors involved in thinking and language, the topic of this chapter. Thinking was not considered an appropriate area of studies in psychology until the second half of the 20th century. The first half of the 20th century was dominated by the behavioral perspective in psychology, but during the 1950s a cognitive revolution emerged in psychology. The cognitive focus was strongly encouraged by the invention of the computer and the information processing questions it raised and could potentially answer. Although some cognitive psychologists draw an analogy between human cognition and the functioning of computers, important differences exist; however, the role of computers in cognitive psychology has given rise to a field called artificial intelligence.

The basic units of thinking are concepts, which are categories that help us to make sense of information in the world. Concepts allow us to generalize and to associate experiences and objects; they also enhance our memory and guide our behaviors. Three models of how concepts are created have been proposed: (1) the classical model, (2) the prototype model, and (3) the exemplar model. According to the classical model, concepts are categories of objects that share defining properties. This model has been criticized because we also have concepts that include objects that don't possess all the defining properties. The prototype model says that we introduce new objects into established concepts based on their similarity of the new object to the most typical object or the prototype of that concept.

Concepts are also important in problem solving. Effective problem solving is characterized by a four-step process: (1) finding and framing the problem, (2) developing problem-solving strategies such as subgoaling, algorithms, and heuristics, (3) evaluating the solutions, and (4) redefining the problems and solutions over time. Some of the obstacles to optimal problem solving are functional fixedness, mental set, lack of motivation, poor emotional control, and lack of expertise. Some ways in which experts differ from novices in their problem-solving skills include having more and better organized knowledge about the issue, better memory on their area of expertise, more effective problem-solving strategies, and experience and practice at problem solving.

Another area of thinking studied in psychology is critical thinking, which involves thinking reflectively and productively, then evaluating the evidence. Being mindful is one of the characteristics of critical thinkers. A mindful person is creative, open to new information, and aware of more than one perspective. Students of psychology who engage in critical thinking are expected to use questions as tools to gain quality information that will aid them in making good judgments and decisions. Reasoning is the mental activity of transforming information to reach conclusions. Inductive reasoning is reasoning from the specific to the general; analogies draw on inductive reasoning. Reasoning from the general to the specific is called deductive reasoning. Evaluating alternatives and making choices among them is called decision-making. There are a number of biases that influence the decision-making process. Some of the biased tendencies in our thinking are the confirmation bias, belief perseverance, overconfidence bias, hindsight bias, availability heuristic, and the representativeness heuristic.

Language is a form of communication based on a system of symbols that can be spoken, written, or signaled. All human languages have infinite generativity based on a limited set of rules, including phonology (basic sounds of a language), morphology (word formation rules), syntax (rules of combinations of words), and semantics (meaning of words).

The relationship between language and thinking is an important question in psychology. Most agree that language (that is, words), plays an important role in memory and thinking, but Whorf suggested that language determines the way we think. Whorf's critics argue that language reflects rather than determines thinking. Studies with deaf children and individuals with Williams syndrome have demonstrated that thinking and language are not completely dependent on one another. Interest in studying the extent of the relationship between thinking and language has sparked interest in the use of language by animals. Apes are able to learn sign language; however, questions remain regarding their ability understand the meaning of the symbols and their ability to learn the rules of language. There is evidence supporting both cognitive abilities in apes.

The case of the "wild child" in France, who as a result of spending six years alone in the wilderness was unable to communicate effectively, raises important questions regarding the roles of nature and nurture in language. From the nature perspective, Noam Chomsky argues that humans are biologically pre-wired to learn language at a certain time and in a certain way. In support of this view is the evidence that children all over the world acquire language milestones at about the same time developmentally and in about the same order. There is also evidence associating brain activity and development with language milestones. Behaviorists have argued strongly for the nurture perspective, pointing out that reinforcement and imitation may also play a role in language development. While the reinforcement and imitation hypotheses have not been well supported by research, it is important for developing children to interact with skilled language users, as evidenced in the case of the "wild child." Research has shown that exposure to language and thus language development varies by socio-economic background and level of maternal speech.

Children learn morphological rules such as word endings to indicate plural nouns. A critical period for language acquisition is a span of time during which the child is ready to learn a certain aspect of language. Beyond the critical period, learning the corresponding aspect of language becomes difficult or even impossible. The unfortunate case of Genie illustrates the critical period for language acquisition. Language development proceeds from babbling in infants to two-word statements, then to telegraphic speech. These language milestones, achieved usually by age 2, are then followed by structured school education of language rules. Two controversial issues on the role of schools in language development are bilingualism and the teaching of reading skills. There is considerable controversy regarding the best way to educate children whose first language is other than English. Bilingualism attempts to teach academic subjects to immigrant children while slowly and simultaneously adding English instruction. Another controversy centers on the best way to teach children to read. The basic-skills-and-phonetics approach emphasizes that reading instruction should stress phonetics and its basic rules for translating written symbols into sounds, while the whole language approach stresses that reading instruction should parallel children's natural language learning.

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