An Introduction to Psycholinguistics

By Danny D. Steinberg; Natalia V. Sciarini | Go to book overview

Chapter 9
Language, thought and
culture

9.1 A relationship at the heart of
psycholinguistics

The relationship of language, thought, and culture is a topic that is central to psycholinguistics. People throughout the ages have wondered whether speech or language is necessary for thought. Can we think without language? Does language influence culture? Does language affect our perception of nature? Does language affect our view of society and the world?

We shall deal directly with these questions. However, before doing so, we would like to begin in an indirect way – by recounting a court case, one that exemplifies the issues that we will consider. The case and the fate of Robert Meyer is true and it happened in the United States about 85 years ago.


9.1.1 The arrest of the Sunday School teacher

In May of 1920, in Hamilton County, which is a rural area in the state of Nebraska, Robert Meyer was arrested for violating a certain state law. This Nebraska law forbade the teaching of a foreign language, that is, a language other than English, to children under the age of 13 years. Meyer had been teaching Bible stories in German at Zion Parochial school to a 10-year-old boy. Since German was a foreign language for the boy, Meyer was in violation of the law. According to Nebraska’s 1919 Siman Act,

No person shall teach any subject to any person in any language other than the
English language. Languages other than English may be taught only after a
pupil shall have … passed the eighth grade…. Any person who violates any
of the provisions of this act shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor and, upon
conviction, shall be subject to a fine of not less than twenty-five dollars ($25),
nor more than one hundred dollars ($100) or be confined in the county jail for
any period not exceeding thirty days for each offense.

(US Supreme Court Reports, 1922, pp. 392–403)

Actually not only Nebraska but 21 other states prohibited the teaching of foreign languages. Only so-called ‘dead’ languages such as Latin and

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