The Language You Speak May Change How You See The World


Jonathan O'Callaghan

Senior Staff Writer

Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

A study has suggested that your native language may affect how you see the world around you.

Published in the journal Psychological Science, the paper suggests that things as specific as whether people will see a particular colored shape or not could be dependent on their language. The study was led by Martin Maier and Rasha Abdel Rahman at the Humboldt University of Berlin.


This builds upon something called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, notes The British Psychological Society (BPS). This is the idea that the language we speak shapes our thinking, and even learning a new language can lead to drastic changes in our thinking.

“Although evidence that language modulates visual discrimination has been accumulating, little is known about the relationship between language structure and consciousness,” Maier and Rahman wrote in their paper.

In their study, they enlisted 28 Greek speakers, 29 German speakers, and 47 Russian speakers. Greek and Russian both contain words for the colors “light blue” and “dark blue”, but have no word simply for “blue”. In German, there is a dedicated word for blue, but other shades rely on qualifiers such as “light blue”.

The volunteers were given 13 different colored shapes on a colored background, and for a grey semi-circle that would appear at some point. However, a triangle would also appear in four out of five occasions, and the researchers wanted to know if that could be spotted. Electroencephalography (EEG) was also used to measure their brain activity.


“Crucially, the triangle was either light blue against a dark blue background circle; light green against a dark green circle; or light or dark blue against either a light or dark green background circle,” noted the BPS.

When the trials were over, the volunteers were asked to say how much of the triangle they had seen, if at all. And interestingly, the Greek-speakers were more likely to spot it when it was light against dark blue, or vice versa, but not with the same shades of green

The German-speakers had no difference between blue and green, but the Russian speakers – like the Greek-speakers – also found it easier to spot the triangle with shades of blue rather than shades of green.

Coupled with the EEG results, the researchers think this shows that language could play a role in how we see things. “Our native language is thus one of the forces that determine what we consciously perceive,” they wrote in their paper.


The study was obviously quite small, and somewhat limited in how it approached this subject. Nonetheless, it’s fairly interesting, and may hint at a deeper role language plays in our views of the world.


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