A recent study has revealed that speakers of two different languages view certain events and their consequences differently, which affects the way they look at the world. Another finding is that the thought process in a person who speaks two languages may be more flexible.
Since the 1940s, cognitive scientists have debated whether our native language impacts our thinking. This idea has resurfaced in the past several decades due to a growing number of studies suggesting that language can stimulate speakers to pay attention to certain things. For example, Russian speakers can distinguish between different shades of blue quicker than English speakers. Japanese speakers tend to group objects by material rather than by shape, whereas Koreans pay attention to how those objects fit into the same group. However, skeptics claim that these are merely lab results or that they simply reflect the cultural differences between speakers that bear no connection with the language itself.
The new research has studied people who speak multiple languages. Studying bilingual speakers aims to rekindle the old argument in a new way. Instead of asking whether speakers of different languages can have different ways of thinking, the question now is whether two different ways of thinking can exist within one person.
Same action perceived through different languages
The research has paid special attention to how English and German speakers look at events. German speakers strive to determine the beginning, the middle and the end of an event, whereas English speakers often overlook those points and focus on the event itself. For instance, watching the same scene, German speakers would say: “A man leaves the house and walks to the store,” whereas English speakers would simply say: “A man is walking.”
According to the research, it appears that this linguistic difference has an impact on how speakers of those two languages see events. It suggests that it is more likely that German speakers will focus on the possible outcomes of an event, while English speakers pay more attention to the event itself. However, speakers of both languages would often switch between those two perspectives depending on which language was more active in their thoughts at the moment. This difference can be seen as a cultural influence, but another experiment has shown that speakers of two languages can shift perspectives just as fast as they can switch from one language to another.
In a group of 30 English and German speakers, various tasks and exercises were employed with the intention to “block out” one or the other language. It turned out that blocking one language automatically increased the influence of the other. When the English language was blocked, speakers would see the events shown as typical Germans. When German was blocked, the same people acted like typical English speakers. When the researchers surprised the subjects by switching the language in the middle of the experiment, the latter would simply switch to the other language.
How we think when we use another language
The authors of the research have concluded that another language can play an important role in our unconscious perception of the surrounding world. If you speak another language, you have an alternative worldview, according to Panos Athanasopoulos, a linguist from Lancaster University (UK). “You can listen to music from only one speaker or you can listen in stereo… It’s the same with language.”
Cognitive scientist Phillip Wolff, who did not participate in the research, stated that this was a significant progress. “If you’re a bilingual speaker, you’re able to entertain different perspectives and go back and forth,” Wolff said. “That really hasn’t been shown before.”
Still, those scientists who doubt that language has a central role in thinking process will probably remain sceptical. The artificial laboratory environment may make people rely on language more than they normally would, says cognitive psychologist Barbara Malt. “In a real-world situation, I could find reasons to pay attention to the continuity of an action and other reasons where I would pay attention to the endpoint,” she says. “Nothing says I have to be a bilingual to do that…”
Clearly, this is a continuing debate. In any case, even the very possibility that speaking multiple languages may affect the way we think and look at the world is certainly worthy of further research.