‘The limits of my language means the limits of my world’ once said the Austrian born British philosopher Ludwig Wittgensein (1889-1951). Depending on your interpretation of this statement, you could say that our comprehension of a situation is inextricably linked with language, or that limits on thought are drawn by our mother tongue and the way in which we therefore perceive the world around us. The idea that our native language can influence the way we perceive reality is something that Lera Bododitsky, associative professor of cognitive science at UC San Diego, and Paul Thibodeau, a cognitive pyschologist at Oberlin College have researched extensively. Their results suggest that the language we speak, affecting how we see a number of different aspects, can also dictate our cognitive abilities. This includes things such as colour, or even much broader concepts, including gender and how we view events.
Languages and our perception of events
Boroditsky’s experiments indicate that grammatical structures of any given language can alter our perceptions of an event, such as an accident. For example, a Japanese, Spanish or English speaker may interpret things in completely different ways because of their native language. A Japanese or Spanish speaker will typically not prioritise mentioning the agent when describing the details of an accident ‘the plate broke’, whereas a native English speaker would be more likely to mention the agent in terms of doing things when recounting the same event ‘Lucy broke the plate’.
Colour and cultural interpretation
The experiments carried out by Boroditsky and Thibodeau also revealed that the language we speak may affect how we perceive colour, and that cultures that have a larger number of categories for colours could identify particular shades more adeptly.
For example, native speakers of Russian (which does not have a single word for “blue”) make greater distinctions between shades of blue: goluboy for lighter blues, and siniy for darker blues. They were found to distinguish between dark and light blues differently to English speakers, and at a faster speed: in fact, Russian speakers were 10% faster at being able to determine between light blues and dark blues in the test when asked to identify shades of blue, as well as blue squares by their shade.
Gender and objects
The findings also establish that in languages where objects carry a gender, people will typically describe them with an associated masculine or feminine term. For example, Boroditsky discovered that Germans would be more inclined to describe bridges (which has a feminine pronoun) as ‘elegant’ or ‘beautiful’, whilst conversely; native Spanish speakers who use a masculine pronoun for the same word would typically refer to them as ‘sturdy’ or ‘strong’.
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- Weller, P. 2017. A leading cognitive scientist reveals how language shapes your perception of gender, color, and justice. Business Insider. [online: here], retrieved on 08/10/2018.
Written by Mairead Finlay – Communication Trainee at the Terminology Coordination Unit of the European Parliament (Luxembourg). She has studied Translation at the University of Geneva and holds a BA in Politics and French from the University of Bristol.