top of page

Language shapes Perception

Author: Anil Thomas


People use their native tongue every day, however, do they realize that their language changes how they perceive the world? Even when two people experience the same event, if they are speaking different languages they perceive the event differently. As Noam Chomsky (2006) said, “There are very deep and restrictive principles that determine the nature of human language and are rooted in the specific character of the human mind.” (p. 90). This also means language leads to what people think and perceive. The change in these perceptions can vary from colors, events, gender to time. There are a lot of experiments that investigate how these perceptions occur and affect people’s lives. Language alters how people perceive events. A study has investigated the perception of motion from participants’ eye movements (Hulbert & Trueswell, 2008). This study included English and Greek participants, the reason for their selection being that these languages have different codes of motion. On one hand there is the English language which uses manner verbs such as ‘walk’, ‘run’, and ‘slide’. However, on the other hand, the Greek language uses path verbs like ‘enter’ and ‘reach’ while coding manners in adverbs. For example, the following sentence, “The boy entered the house quickly.” is generally used by the Greek language, rather than saying “The boy ran into the house.” which an English speaker would generally say. By using different languages, researchers aimed to see whether there are any differences between English and Greek participants’ perception of motion.In the study, participants were made to watch animation clips and then answer the memory test given to them. After analyzing the experiment, results demonstrated something novel. It was found that if people are planning to talk after a scene, then their attention changes while looking at the scene. The parts they look at in the scene and motion differ, their language encodes the movement differently. Therefore, speaking different languages (path or manner languages) lead people to perceive the scene differently, if they are planning to speak after looking at the motion. The alteration in attention has been investigated and supported by other researchers as well. If people speak languages such as Swedish or Afrikaans, they are going to look at endpoints while looking at events with motion. However, people who speak Russian, Spanish or Arabic will do this action to a lower degree (Athanasopoulos & Bylund, 2013; Bylund, Athanasopoulos, & Oostendorp, 2013; Flecken, Carroll, & von Stutterheim, 2014; von Stutterheim, Andermann, Carroll, Flecken, & Schmiedtová, 2012). Moreover, bilingual people are also affected by which two languages they use because of inter-typological and intra-typological differences between languages. If one has learned the same type of language such as Polish and German, then one expresses motion events with the language pattern of one’s first language (Lewandowski & Özçaliskan, 2021). However, if one has learned a different type of language such as Polish-Spanish, then one uses patterns of the second language. This demonstrates that people who speak different languages will perceive events differently, their language leads them to think differently. People’s perception of time is also altered by language. In a study, the impact of language on time has been investigated by using the density of events (Wang & Gennari, 2019). Participants had recalled information about the events in the experiment that they had produced themselves, after watching animations. As a result, it has been found that if the density of events is high, the amount of time that people are recalling the events gets higher. The distortion of time that participants experience happens because they use language by encoding and retrieving events. Another interesting point about the perception of time is how people think about time. English speakers think that time goes from left to right (Boroditsky & Gaby, 2010). However, the Australian community thinks that time goes in terms of landscape. To illustrate, they think that time goes from east to west. This shows how different languages result in perceiving time differently. Last but not least, according to Deutscher (2010), some languages do not use future tense. This consequently leads to people who speak these languages, not being able to comprehend what the future means. These pieces of evidence signify that speaking different languages changes how people perceive time. Albert Einstein said, time is an illusion. However, language gives time meaning and leads the way people understand the world. Language affects people’s visual perception as well. The reason that language affects color perception is the categorization of colors is different in various languages (Deutscher, 2010). If the brain cannot decide if two colors are similar or not, it asks for language circuits in the brain, even when people do not speak. To illustrate, Russians have two blues: light blue and dark blue (Winawer et al., 2007). However, English has only one blue. When these two colors are presented to participants, Russian participants told researchers that these are different colors. Meanwhile, people who speak English said that these are the same color. In addition, this result has been supported by the research between Chinese and Mongolian speakers (He et al., 2019). As Miller said, “Every perception of color is an illusion, we do not see colors as they really are.” (p. 163). In our perception, they alter one another. In this case, language alters how colors are perceived and leads to the way people think about colors. The way people use language affects how they think about themselves as well. This occurs by using three different language filters: Deletion, distortion, and generalization. In deletion, a person might think, ‘oh! this project is not going well.’ In this sentence, the person does not specify which project is not going well and in which way is it not going well (Scribbr, 2020). Or the person might use adverbs like ‘obviously’ but it may not be that obvious. For example, a person might say, ‘Obviously she does not like me’ (Gabriel Sean Wallace, 2020). ‘In which obvious way she does not like him’ and ‘how he knows that it is so obvious’ are not expressed in this sentence, which causes deletion in language. By employing deletion, the thinking style of a person is altered by one’s language. The second filter is distortion. People who use this filter tend to read minds. For example, one thinks that her message is short, this means ‘she is angry with me’ (Gabriel Sean Wallace, 2020). However, it is quite possible that she may be busy or angry with another person, and there is no way that he can know the actual reason behind the message being short. However, he tries to read her mind and jumps to a conclusion. Using language, he distorts reality. The third one is generalization. For example, a person says: ‘Nobody listens to me’. However, when one asks, ‘who does not listen to you?’ The answer he gives is John. Basically, what the person did is that he generalized the event with the help of language, changed the reality, and started believing in a different, distorted reality. All of these filters indicate that language holds the potential to change the perception and thinking style of people. Lastly, language has the power to change how the mind thinks. Gender perception, counting, thinking orderly, or reasoning differently are all caused by language structure. Have you ever thought about how you would describe a bridge? Moreover, have you ever thought that your language can change the way you describe a bridge? According to the literature, it does happen. In Spanish, the bridge gets a masculine article, therefore people who speak Spanish describe the bridge as strong and masculine (Gentner & Goldin-Meadow, 2003, pp. 63-79). However, the opposite happens in the German language which uses the feminine article for the bridge, therefore people who speak German describe the bridge as feminine and beautiful. The structure of language changes people’s perception of the gender of objects. Language also changes the counting style of people. For example, English speakers count from left to right. However, some languages do not have number systems, therefore they do their counting by comparing things (Pica et al., 2004). To illustrate, if a man has 12 ducks and wants to buy 12 apples, he says that I want as many apples as my ducks. Another aspect of language structure that changes people’s perception is how people think. Some languages are more romantic such as French, or they have a more orderly structure like German (Deutscher, 2010). Since the language structure of German is orderly, Germans think more orderly, are more logical and are able to comprehend more complex ideas. This shows how the structure of language affects people’s perceptions. This is also very important for eyewitness testimony. The reason is, some languages, such as English, make people able to remember the person who did an action (Fausey & Boroditsky, 2011). For example, the sentence “Mark broke the glass.” shows who did the action because of the language structure. However, Spanish language users will remember the intention, such as the action of breaking the glass was accidental. This difference in languages results in different testimonies by the different people who saw the accident thanks to the various languages they speak. Moreover, if inconsistent information in one language is given after an event to bilinguals, their memory tends to be inaccurate in reports even though they say that they are very confident about how well they remember the event (Shaw et al., 1997). All of these examples demonstrate how language changes people’s reasoning and their thinking styles. In the case of eyewitness testimony, it leads to problems due to inaccurate information being stored in memory due to differences in language. Language, then, is not the experience, but merely a metaphor for it. In other words, there is no objective reality which exists independent of language. And even if it does- we’ll never know of it, since all we have is the language we speak. Language shapes our realities, it governs what we’re thinking, what we’re perceiving. Rather than merely being a tool we’ve invented for communication, it can be better described as being a cognitive universe of its own, encompassing all our thoughts, narratives, fears, limitations, and beliefs. And each of us have our own cognitive universe to delve in! It’s true that language is a skill which we all strive to master, but it’s also fascinating to understand that language development is a dynamic process. It influences us more than we’re aware of! As Ludwig Wittgenstein rightly said, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” Suggestive Language: Embedded Commands, Presuppositions & Hypnotic Language Language can be directive and suggestive. However, they need to be activated by one’s speech (Sbisà, 2021). This may happen in two different ways. Firstly, using hypnotic language creates a sense of direction for the listener. Secondly, using presuppositions and embedded commands make the language suggestive. Hypnotic language is generally used in therapy and there are three suggestive types of hypnotic language (Burton, 2007). First one alters the experience of the person and changes the meaning of the experience cognitively. Second one makes the patient think about the experience unconsciously and categorize it again in one’s mind. Third one offers the patient new sources for one’s personal growth and change. However, the reason why they are suggestive is explained by Erickson and Rossi (1981). The hypnotic language uses words with different meanings. For example, the word “fast” can be used to mean walking fast or men are fast. The word is the same, however, the meaning it creates is different. Therefore, hypnotic language relies on understanding and using these words correctly, when the person gives them correct punctuation and voice. Erickson also signifies the importance of using pauses while using hypnotic language on a patient. To illustrate, he says that ‘he does not know’ and then pauses. It can seem meaningless, however, the patient grabs the suggestive meaning in the sentence “I don’t know”. Erickson implies that he knows that the patient has not told something about the matter to him yet (about what they have been talking about), and the patient gets deeper into the hypnosis. This hypnotic language creates a sense of direction and meaning in the patient’s mind. Moreover, by using embedded commands the suggestiveness of the hypnotic language increases. To illustrate, asking a friend “You won’t mind walking with me, will you?” suggests that you expect them to walk with you and it gives a direction to the language. Since this example has a directive language, the answer will be more likely to be positive. These examples demonstrate how using hypnotic language and embedded commands make the language lead the speech. The second way that language directs the speech hap