Relationship Between Communication Literacy and Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

The foundation of media literacy is built upon personal comprehension of the relationship between culture and mass media. A fundamental skill of a media-literate person includes investigating and confronting media depictions through interaction with media content. A media literate person needs to develop, “A knowledge of the internal language of various media and the ability to understand its effects, no matter how complex” (Baran, 2015, p. 25). Deciphering the internal language of a culture such as mass media is necessary for a person to understand his or her role within that culture. However, the process of learning the internal language can be difficult if media literate skills are absent.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, or linguistic relativity, determines, “that language shapes our thoughts and culture, and our culture and thoughts affect the language we use to describe our world” (Beebe, Beebe, & Redmond, 2011, p. 160). An obvious example of linguistic relativity is the symbolism of spoken language. A non-native speaker of Arabic or Japanese will likely struggle with the symbolic content of these high context languages because non-native speakers are learning symbolism as a secondary process to the language (Beebe, Beebe, & Redmond, 2011). A less obvious example of linguistic relativity is the unspoken language of a culture. A person from poverty will struggle with the cultural behaviors of middle class because these two groups lead divergent lifestyles.

Learning the language of media is a necessary component for critiquing and changing media. Reflecting on the relationship between the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and media literacy, a person needs to participate with the internal language of media to facilitate a deeper understanding of the role media plays in culture. Distinguishing a person’s role within the culture of media is an integral part of challenging and contesting cultural expectations and depictions.


Baran, S. J., (2015), Introduction to Mass Communication Media Literacy and Culture. (8th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Beebe, S. A., Beebe, S. J., & Redmond, M. V., (2011). Interpersonal Communication: Relating to Others (6th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.


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