Speaking a second language may change how you see the world

Nicholas Weiler in Science:

BiWhere did the thief go? You might get a more accurate answer if you ask the question in German. How did she get away? Now you might want to switch to English. Speakers of the two languages put different emphasis on actions and their consequences, influencing the way they think about the world, according to a new study. The work also finds that bilinguals may get the best of both worldviews, as their thinking can be more flexible. Cognitive scientists have debated whether your native language shapes how you think since the 1940s. The idea has seen a revival in recent decades, as a growing number of studies suggested that language can prompt speakers to pay attention to certain features of the world. Russian speakers are faster to distinguish shades of blue than English speakers, for example. And Japanese speakers tend to group objects by material rather than shape, whereas Koreans focus on how tightly objects fit together. Still, skeptics argue that such results are laboratory artifacts, or at best reflect cultural differences between speakers that are unrelated to language.

In the new study, researchers turned to people who speak multiple languages. By studying bilinguals, “we’re taking that classic debate and turning it on its head,” says psycholinguist Panos Athanasopoulos of Lancaster University in the United Kingdom. Rather than ask whether speakers of different languages have different minds, he says, “we ask, ‘Can two different minds exist within one person?’ ” Athanasopoulos and colleagues were interested in a particular difference in how English and German speakers treat events. English has a grammatical toolkit for situating actions in time: “I was sailing to Bermuda and I saw Elvis” is different from “I sailed to Bermuda and I saw Elvis.” German doesn’t have this feature. As a result, German speakers tend to specify the beginnings, middles, and ends of events, but English speakers often leave out the endpoints and focus in on the action. Looking at the same scene, for example, German speakers might say, “A man leaves the house and walks to the store,” whereas an English speaker would just say, “A man is walking.” This linguistic difference seems to influence how speakers of the two languages view events, according to the new study.

Picture: German speakers are likely to imagine where this woman is going and English speakers to focus on her journey, but bilinguals may be able to have it both ways.

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