Whorf, language and education

by Li-ting Liu

Benjamin Whorf’s linguistic theory suggests that the language we speak affects the way we think, in other words, that we are the prisoners of our mother tongues. If Whorf’’s theory is correct, the language we speak greatly affects both our learning and teaching styles, directly influences language teaching methods, and indirectly influences overall teaching approaches and even the educational system as a whole.

In traditional Chinese1, the official language of Taiwan, the written characters can only be learned by memorization because the traditional Chinese system of writing does not represent the sounds of the speech but are rather conventionalized symbols for ideas and things. However, written English has a very close connection with the sounds of the speech. Thus English-speaking children are often able to pronounce a printed word correctly that they have never seen before or to come close to the correct pronunciation by "sounding it out." However, it is impossible—or at least extremely difficult—for Taiwanese children to do so. When Chinese speakers don’t know the pronunciation or the meaning of a word in print or writing in their elementary school years, they ask their parents or teachers, whereas when young US English speakers encounter a new word, they try to pronounce it and then try to figure out meaning from context. Thus, in the students’ elementary reading activities, Chinese students learn to trust and depend on authorities while English-speaking students learn to explore and discover on their own.

The complexity of the written Chinese characters also influences the educational approach in Taiwan. Chinese characters evolved from pictographs and ideographs. However, as Ta-Tuan Ch’en points out in Chinese Primer: Lessons, the majority of the characters have become so different from their original forms that one cannot discern a character’s meaning by simply looking at it. Moreover, the characters have to be written in certain stroke order and proportion. The only way that students can master the characters is by repetitive practicing. Chinese elementary school teachers usually assign their students around 10 characters per day and make the students write them an average of 20 times each. It is also common for teachers to assign chapters of the book for students to copy word for word as homework or as extra work for punishment. The Taiwanese students that I consulted about this topic admitted that they had to write vocabulary and copy texts while they were in elementary school. One US student whom I interviewed said that she had never heard of copying chapters in the US, but that she remembered being required to compose a 150-word essay or similar extra or punishment work in elementary school. Again, Chinese linguistic script dictates rote work, while the Western phonetic system provides tools but not content. In other words, because of the complexity of the Chinese characters, Chinese teachers have to give students repetitive copying drills to refine their language skills, while the English teachers have more room for creativity in their assignments, even if they are intended as punishment.

Chinese characters themselves are complicated and confusing enough, but they often also join others to form new characters. For example, the Chinese symbol for please is a single character composed of two characters, one for word and one for green. The Chinese symbol for trust/believe is a single character composed of two characters, one for people and one for word. Moreover, characters can also form multi-character words. For example, the character for first and the character for born are combined to create the character for sir. In like manner, the character for birthday combines the characters for birth and for day. We can see from these examples that some Chinese characters resemble the self-explaining compound words in English and German (for example, lipstick or chainsaw). However, in most cases, Chinese single-compound characters and multicharacter words only vaguely reflect, if at all, the meaning of the particular characters that comprise them. Dr. Y. R. Chao of Yale University, observing this phenomenon, noted the absence of a word for word in Chinese; the nearest equivalent, he says, is the element tsz, which is translated as word but which really means something like syllable or syllabic elements. Many such elements never occur as free units but only in limited combinations, like the prefix pyr- in pyrometer. Words in the sense of vocabulary units exist as either one or two syllables, a fact obscured by the traditional Chinese system of writing, says Whorf (1956 p. 21). Therefore, the only way to learn this complicated system of Chinese characters and words well enough to distinguish among them is by constant practice.

These differences in language structure between Chinese and English contribute to the differences in the structure of lessons in a language class. A typical lesson from the standard Chinese textbook for third graders in Taiwan2 consists of a story and the activities related to the story. The activities relating to the lesson are mostly about learning two key characters, the words created from the characters, and their pronunciation. The exercises involve repetition and imitation. The only creative activity involves reading a short poem and making up a writing topic based on it. A typical US English textbook aimed at about the same age level takes a different approach. Like the Chinese textbook, a story is followed by activities related to the story. However, the activities in this case do not focus on memorization or on learning about the terms. Instead, the activities seek to reinforce the children’s skills of problem solving, comprehension, research, and creativity.

Taiwanese education has long been criticized as teacher-centered and memorization-oriented, and these qualities are confirmed by the growth of "cram schools" in Taiwan. These cram schools are private educational institutions that students may attend for a high fee after school or during the weekends for the purpose of reinforcing their academic subjects. Cram school teachers in Taiwan are often paid salaries several times higher than are public school teachers (Yang, 1995, p. 65). The top qualification that a cram school teacher must demonstrate is to "be able to recite the contents of school textbooks verbatim" (p. 66). In other words, memorization continues to be considered one of the most important elements of education. This valued element of education, as we have seen, is consistent with the language system. The complexity of Chinese characters and words requires an educational method—at least in elementary school language arts classes—that emphasizes repetitive drills on reading, writing, and memorizing. Spending much time learning such a complicated writing system, children learn self-discipline and respect for authority. However, a disadvantage might be that the language and educational system it necessitates does not foster creativity. Compared to Chinese, the English system of writing is fairly simple and flexible, disregarding some confusing grammatical aspects. Children can understand, read, or write the language more easily, giving teachers more time to teach them other vital skills, such as critical thinking skills. It is also easier for non-English speakers to learn and understand English writing than for a non-Chinese speaker to master the written Chinese language. Even though my research involves only limited samples and personal experience, it supports Whorf’s theory that our first languages do affect many aspects of our lives, including educational approaches.

Although the Chinese government in mainland China has already started language reforms such as simplified characters and substituting Chinese characters with phonetics (hanys pinyin), the Taiwanese government rejects language reform and insists on using traditional Chinese. The Taiwanese people are aware that the Chinese language’s difficulty may be an obstacle in international politics, trade, and communication. Nonetheless, Taiwanese government officials argue that in each character lies the richness and the beauty of the culture. The government encourages the learning of English by implementing English as a required subject for middle and high school students. Perhaps by both increasing the critical thinking skills in all subjects and incorporating English as a second language, Taiwan can take a step towards multicultural and progressive education without having to face the danger of altering or even losing the traditional Chinese written tradition.


Ch’en, T.T., et al., (Eds.) (1989). Chinese primer: Lessons. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

DeFrancis, J. (1976). Beginning Chinese. New Haven: Yale University Press.

DeFrancis, J. ( 1976). Character text for beginning Chinese. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Lee, K., et al., (Eds.) (1995). Gwayeu. Taipei: National Institution for Editing.

Macdonald, A. (1996, Fall). Grammar and language class.

Thoburn, T., et al., (Eds.) (1982). Macmillan English. New York: Macmillan.

Whorf, B. L. ( 1956). Language, thought, and reality. New York: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Yang, H.-M. G. (1995). Cram schools in Taiwan: Supplementing education. The Educational Forum. 60:64-67.


1 Taiwan uses the traditional Chinese characters. China, because of the language reform starting in 1949, has employed both the simplified characters and hanys pinyin, a phonetic spelling system.

2 Chinese reading materials in general should be read from top to bottom and from right to left.

Li-ting Liu of Taiwan currently works part-time as a teacher in the Academy of Chinese Studies in Metairie, Louisiana.

From TESOL Matters, April/May 1997