Does our language influence the way we think?

About two years ago Thomas Jagau posted the question “Why do some languages not distinguish between blue and green?”. The possible answer was: Due to defects in color perception.

Whatever the actual answer is: The fact that languages differ drastically in what they can describe and distinguish leads to another question: Do natives to different languages think drastically different? The obvious answer may be: No, why should they? But if we give the question a bit more thought: Isn’t language the tool we use to think beyond pure instinctive emotions? And in this way of reasoning: Isn’t it just natural that speakers of different languages have to think differently? Does this mean that there are languages that are better suited to think about one task or another?

It is, at least, established that language influences the way we perceive our surroundings, a claim going by the “Whorf hypothesis”. For example Gilbert and coworkers were able to find support for the Whorf hypothesis for the right visual field in a conscious search test. [1] This was to be expected, since the left hemisphere of the brain is strongly involved in many language tasks.

So language causes differences in our conscious ways of thought and therewith in our conscious way to view the world, but does it also influence subconscious, so-called preattentive perception? Three years ago a group of Britain-based researchers addressed this question with a study titled “Unconscious effects of language-specific terminology on preattentive color perception”. [2]

To investigate these effects the authors chose colors of blue and green in different hues and set a group of native English speakers against a group of native Greek speakers. The the Greek language possesses the words to distinguish light blue from dark blue suggested an advantage for the Greek speakers. To test whether advantages in language terminology lead to faster color perception the authors monitored the brainwaves of their participants for the perception of a very fast color change. The surprising result: The Greek participants were indeed significantly more competent in the detection of changing blue hues, which the authors attribute to their extended terminology for blue colors.

So we can say language influences color perception, but what about math? Everybody says  that math is a language by itself and therewith universal. In fact I do have a colleague from Bulgaria who started in Germany by doing math and said just this: It was an easy start for him, since math is  math in every language. Does that mean that every language is suited for doing math or does this mean that math is a language-independent way of thinking? A recent study actually claims the latter: By magnetic resonance imaging experiments Mori and coworkers revealed that different brain regions are responsible for language syntax and algebra operations. [3]

Still many questions remain open: Who knows whether the ideal language to think about anything exists? Many will say: Yes, it’s math! But you cannot think about anything using math, can you?

Felix Spenkuch

Read more:

[1] A. L. Gilbert, T. Regier, P. Kay, R. B. Ivry , Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. USA 2006, 103, 2, 489–494.

[2] G. Thierry, P. Athanasopoulos, A. Wiggett, B. Dering, J.-R. Kuipers, Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. USA 2009, 106, 11, 4567–4570.

[3] M. M. Monti, L. M. Parsons, D. N. Osherson, Psychological Science 2012, 23 , 8, 914-922.