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Our perception of the world varies depending on the language we use

A recent study has shown that our way of thinking varies according to the language we use. 

Speaking a second language usually gives the impression that your behaviour changes slightly, that you act and react a little differently, as if you were discovering a new aspect of your own personality. A recent study published in Psychological Science has in fact described precisely how language influences individuals, focusing on the effects it can have on the way people think.

The study was carried out by 7 researchers, including linguistics professor Panos Athanasopoulos, before being reported by Mashable. The study was based on multiple experiments, which allowed them to compare the ways of perception of different groups of individuals speaking different languages. Some only spoke German, others only English, and finally others were bilingual. 

Revealing Contrasts

In one of the experiments, the individuals tested watched videos showing moving people, such as a man going towards a supermarket on a bike or a woman walking to a car. The English individuals – who didn’t speak a second language – when asked what they saw, generally said: “a man cycling” and “a woman walking”, without mentioning the objective of these actions. 

On the other hand, the monolingual Germans were more likely to see it as “a man cycling to the supermarket” and “a woman walking to her car”. The authors of the study therefore explain that the perception of German speakers is holistic, they take into account the environment in which the action is taking place. The Anglophones, in contrast, tend to focus on the action itself. 

According to the researchers, these differences can be explained by the grammatical differences between the two languages. Basically, English grammatically marks actions which are taking place by adding ‘-ing’ to the end of verbs (as in ‘walking’ or ‘cycling’ : ’to ride a bike’), and thus emphasises them. The German language, however, does not behave like this.

Bilingual speakers: Two thought systems

Another experiment of the same type was carried out on the bilingual individuals speaking English and German. They had to watch the same type of video, while reciting sequences of numbers aloud. The effect of such an action was surprising: by absent-mindedly using one of the two languages, the other language imposed itself in the mind of the individual, who thought according to it. 

In concrete terms, when the individuals recited mechanically in English, they thought in German – and therefore according to the holistic perceptions of its grammar. And vice-versa. This is also why, when a sequence of numbers was recited by an individual first in German and then in English, a change in the interpretation of the video accompanied this reversal. 

Finally, a group of Germans who were bilingual in English was also studied in two situations. The first was to get them to speak German in their own country: logically, they thought in a holistic way. On the other hand, when they were brought to the UK, and asked to speak in English, they revealed a similar way of thinking to that of the Anglophones – generally focusing on the different actions of the videos at the expense of the context.

Manipulation through language

By demonstrating the effects of language on thought, this study echoes the concept of ‘Newspeak’ developed by George Orwell in ‘1984’. Indeed, it appears that a great poverty of vocabulary should logically lead to a restriction of the capacity for reflection. Many word concepts allow us to better understand the world around us: to suppress them is therefore to limit the critical capacities of individuals.

However, a ‘newspeak’ can also lead individuals to think in a formatted way. It was for this purpose that the Nazis reshaped their own language, as analysed by Victor Klemperer in his book ‘LTI, Lingua Tertii Imperii, the language of the Third Reich’. He explains, for example, that they often used the prefix ‘Volk’, which means ‘People’, in order to make the latter believe that they were trying to serve them.

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