Scientists Probe an Enduring Question: Can Language Shape Perception?
Picture a sunlit Grecian sea or the deep hues of Santorini’s rooftops. They’re both called “blue” in English. But to Greek speakers, the lighter hue is “ghalazio” and the darker color “ble.” When researchers showed native speakers of both languages squares of light and dark blue, they found the Greek speakers viewed the two colors as more unlike each other. Did a different language influence how people viewed the two colors?
The idea that language can shape perception and thought — a hypothesis formally known as “linguistic relativity” — harkens back to the 1930s. This hypothesis asserts that language doesn’t just express ideas, it actively shapes them, determining how we understand the world around us. Initially met with great interest, this idea fell out of favor by the 1960s due to a lack of scientific evidence.
Still, the notion refuses to die. Many researchers now believe that language does play a role in some aspects of cognitive activity, but the nature and extent of this role remains frustratingly murky. “We’d like to be able to say: look we tested it, and here’s the answer,” says Terry Regier, a linguistics researcher at the University of California Berkeley. But evidence to support some version of linguistic relativity “doesn’t replicate reliably.”
Now, cognitive scientists are applying new technologies to resolve the issue. Their methods can tap directly into the brain to track blood flow and electrical activity in response to sensory input, allowing researchers to investigate the neural mechanisms by which language works to influence cognitive function. Additionally, research groups have begun to study young infants. These pudgy-cheeked humans allow us to understand the brain’s capacity to process sensory information before words are learned. Taken together, these experiments point in a surprising direction: Language does, indeed, influence our ability to perceive the world around us.
In 2016, researchers in Japan investigated whether babies can categorize colors, by using a method that measured the babies’ neural responses to various colors and shades. A color switch between blue and green triggered an increase in blood flow to certain parts of the brain, indicating that the brain perceived and processed the two colors differently — well before the babies learned the words “green” and “blue.” Yet when babies were shown 2 shades of green, there was no corresponding change in blood flow.
This caused Alice Skelton, a Ph.D. student in psychologist Anna Franklin’s lab at the University of Sussex, to wonder how the infant brain draws the line between different colors. She and her colleagues strapped babies into car seats and showed them a sequence of several differently-colored squares. A baby was presented one color and the researchers watched how long it took for its eyes to drift away in boredom. When that happened, they placed another colored square adjacent to the first. Babies prefer looking at novel things. So if they perceived the second hue as new or different, it grabbed their attention — and held their gaze. But if the infants saw the new color as basically similar to the previous one, they remained uninterested.
The team found that babies appear to lump colors together into five groups: red, yellow, green, blue, and purple. Those categories appear to be governed by the biology of color vision itself. Other studies from Franklin’s lab suggest that toddlers who are learning language still see colors much like babies do — based on their biology rather than lexicon. But several studies have found that language does appear to influence adults’ perceptions of color. As we grow and learn new color words, Skelton explains, languages teach us to distinguish more tints.
“We’re not saying all color categories are just a result of biology,” says Skelton. “It’s more that biology provides the fault lines that culture then builds upon.”
Figuring out how culture — and more specifically, language — influences adult perception has historically been difficult. Consider the study of how Greek vs. English speakers perceive color. One might argue that the results merely reflect linguistic differences: Because the Greek speakers have two labels, they can slap “ghalazio” and “ble” on the two hues. While English speakers call both of those hues “blue,” this doesn’t mean they don’t see the differences — they just don’t call them two different names.
“It’s very difficult to negate that argument because it actually makes good sense,” says Guillaume Thierry, a cognitive neuroscientist at Bangor University. Still, he wanted to understand what was at work in the brains of those Greek and English speakers as they looked at different shades of blue. Thierry returned to his study. This time, instead of asking participants how they’d name the colors, his team placed electrodes on the participants’ scalps to track tiny changes in electrical signals in the brain’s visual system. Now, participants no longer needed to name the colors. Researchers could directly observe participants’ neural activity.
Native speakers of Greek and English were shown a series of circles and squares, and instructed to press a button when they saw a square instead of a circle. The shapes randomly switched colors between a light and dark shade of either blue or green, but participants weren’t instructed to focus on the colors. During the test, electrical activity revealed that in Greek speakers, the visual system responded differently to “ghalazio” and “ble” shapes. The change wasn’t seen in English speakers. Perhaps most surprisingly, the fluctuation in electrical activity occurred within 200 milliseconds of seeing the color — faster than the average person’s brain can retrieve a word.
When the researchers asked participants what they’d seen, most didn’t recall even seeing differently-colored circles. There were squares that changed color, they said, and some circles. Because participants had been asked to consciously focus on squares, they all recalled both shades of blue on the squares. But only the Greek speakers unconsciously registered the difference in blue colored circles. “That was a turning point for me,” Thierry recalls. “It showed that the visual system functions differently in speakers of one language than another, and that people can’t account for [that difference] in other ways.”
The team repeated the experiment with shapes. The Spanish word “taza” encompasses both cups and mugs, whereas English distinguishes between the two. When Spanish and English speakers were presented with pictures of a cup, mug, or bowl, the difference between the cup and mug elicited greater electrical activity in the brains of English speakers than in Spanish speakers.
These speedy spikes in brain activity occur even when people are unaware of them. But does the altered perception have an effect on subsequent actions? That’s hard to say, according to Thierry. “Our results are very much about unconscious processing by the human brain,” he says. “The very nature of this kind of research entails that any links to overt behavior and attitude can only be tentative.”
But few researchers today seek such links, or support the extreme notion that users of one language think entirely differently than those who speak another tongue. Linguistic relativity can take many forms — some seemingly more mundane than others. Perhaps knowing an extra word for blue simply influences what we see on an Aegean holiday.
And yet, surely what we see, smell, and otherwise sense fuels at least some of our thinking. That’s why researchers continue to probe the interplay between language and cognitive activity. Understanding the effects of color categories in different languages is only a first step. “In the bigger picture, it’s about principles that are broadly generalizable,” Regier says. “It’s really about the effect of a communicative system on thought.”
Jyoti Madhusoodanan is a science journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She covers life sciences, health, and STEM careers for Nature, Science, Scientific American, Discover, Chemical & Engineering News, and other outlets.
Im not sure if a baby does see differences in hues but without a word label, is not compelled to attend to the subtle differences. Perhaps the label punctuates the sense of the difference, highlighting it as a something worthy of placing greater attention on it. Also, language is a social event in that it is given from one person, on some form of communication to another. When we are given a word, it is from another, and the use of that word, in addition to directing our attention to highlight objects, may involve the motivation to participate in, and belong to another or group. Perhaps language doesn’t so much create the perception as much as it ampligies our expand the difference’s dimensions and importance as it facilitates our entry into the social world.
Are you sure you don’t mean 想象/想象力 or 幻想 or 设想 or 构想 ?
If those concepts are still not equal to “imagination”, I would like to know how they aren’t.
Please enlighten me.
I remember teaching a class in China when English was being implemented into education there and I realised there was no equivalent word for imagination. Not even as a concept. Needless to say I spent the rest of the class trying to teach the concept. From that day onward my class changed. It was like I had imparted a secret. Everyday I used to get pages of writing from all my students ( my night reading their words). The opposite is also true. When I learnt the word for cup in chinese my view changed instantly and my ability to understand Chinese was forever changed too. I agree how we conceptualize language and understand semantics affects our cognitive ability to derive meaning, understanding, and order in our world.
I remember teaching a class in China when English was being implemented into education there and I realised there was no equivalent word for imagination. Not even as a concept. a form necessary for creativity. Needless to say I spent the rest of the class trying to teach the concept. From that day onward my class changed. It was like I had imparted a secret. Everyday I used to get pages of writing from all my students ( my night reading their words). The opposite is also true. When I learnt the word for cup in chinese my view changed instantly and my ability to understand Chinese was forever changed too. I agree how we conceptualize language affects our cognitive ability to derive meaning understanding, and order in our world.
I’m reminded of the story of Hellen Keller describing how, when she first ‘got’ the word Water, as her teacher signed in her hand under the pump flow “It was as if the whole world occured” in that instant, in a space that was previously dark and undefined. Her teacher described it as if a light had turned on in Helen’s face.
When you realize that not everyone defines words, especially subjective words, such as JOY, FUN, etc., the same way, it can be liberating. I struggled with clinical depression all my life. Questions designed to pinpoint the depths of one’s depression typically use these subjective words – How frequently did you experience JOY or FUN today (this week/month/etc.)? The answer always depressed me – never or rarely. As a member of MENSA and a college professor, I’m generally considered to be somewhat bright, but it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I thought to question the meaning of these subjective words. For whatever reason, I have always ascribed the meaning of FUN or JOY to include adrenaline-producing events: skiing, rides at amusement parks, etc. So, no, I don’t experience these particular feelings frequently (I’m in my 60s). But that doesn’t mean I’m feeling depressed!
I spent an afternoon painting a picture, and my sister asked me if I’d had fun. No, I don’t consider painting “fun.” It’s like writing – it’s immersive and can provide feelings of accomplishment, of frustration, of pride. But FUN? NO!
Once I realized that there was a major difference in my definition of these subjective words and that of psychologists and others of their ilk, I (and my doc) found that I was far healthier (mentally) than I’d thought.
So, I’d say that YES, language can affect perception!
The development of language and thought is iterative( Vygotsky; Piaget),and culturally/ socially influenced. This can be observed in young toddlers as they make successive approximations toward the adult demonstrations of both in their environment.If the demonstrations are rich and varied the ability to conceptualizer and express will be enhanced and expanded. This is a critical underpinning for schooling curricula and practice.
& what about not just need language compared to another but thinking & remembering in language compared to passing into deeper layers of consciousness to the language-free depths of meditation? That’s where the big difference is, that language itself, in the surface layers of consciousness mediates, filters, prismatically splits our perception, from the free space of Awareness Itself, Consciousness Itself, rather that contracting around the contents of consciousness, as objects, things including the very identification of “I” with the body, which is another object in Consciousness…this is what non-dual Realization is all about whether in Hinduism, Zen or Tibetan Buddhism, or in Christian mystics such as Meister Eckart, gnosticism, of Sufi mystics, or Jewish Kabbalah, all of which say that at the deepest level the ultimate Reality is imageless!
The problem with translating from one language to another is the difference in conceptual possibilities. A concept has to be put into words to be understood. Different languages offer different possibilities, sometimes making it very hard to explain a concept in another language. Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander explain that quite well in “Surfaces and Essences”.
“When the only tool you have is a hammer every problem looks like a nail. The same can be said about language.”
I totally disagree with this :-( If the only tool you have is a hammer, you will need to work out some other option for dealing with your problem. Same with language -if you don’t have a ‘word’ for what you want to say, either use a sentence or borrow a word from another language
I suspect that it is totally the other way around. That our perception shapes our language.
And that because I am often frustrated when I can find no word in English that adequately describes what I want to say.
Often this lack of one’s own language leads to ‘borrowings’ from other languages.
A quick end note…..
When the only tool you have is a hammer every problem looks like a nail. The same can be said about language.
Very interesting subject. You do a very good job at presenting the objective aspects of languages (in terms of colors) but I think you would find more information by studying subjective elements of language and vocabulary. I spend time with son reading French and we have to go through linguistic gymnastics to translate text for intended meeting as opposed to literal translation. To speak French you have to think French. Communicating in French is not the same as communicating in English. The subjective content of what is being communicated in not the same even though the point being expressed is similar. The translation is not linear.
Concepts like Schadenfreude could have just been coincidental or they could have cultural in origin based on perception. Here are list of unique and interesting words spawned by different perceptions:
My wife is a teacher and before a new unit they learn vocabulary for the unit. This is required as it creates the reference frame for the students to examine and report findings (their perceptions). Without this vocabulary their perceptions would be imprecise. As a scientist I wrote my thesis and and had it edited by my an arts major. He continually pointed out that I was making up words (and grammar) to express my observations and results that made no linguistic sense in language context but accurately reflected what I was trying to express which the thesis review board had no issues with.
I would also recommend a review of subject/object relations. Objectively things are the same (in terms of physical properties) but subjectively (values and importance assigned to objects) things are viewed differently by people and cultures. This varying balance can affect perceptions.
A recent article by Starre Vartan about findings by researchers of the Lund University notes: “The people who speak Jedek are settled hunter-gatherers, and their language may influence — or reflect — other aspects of their culture. (You can hear the language in the video above.) As detailed by the linguists, “There are no indigenous verbs to denote ownership such as borrow, steal, buy or sell, but there is a rich vocabulary of words to describe exchanging and sharing.”
If culture shapes language – is this not quite likely then that language will shape perception as well?