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 happens while using presuppositions. According to Dilts (2017), these presuppositions can be used by redefining or intention. In the intention pattern, the person should try to understand the intention behind one’s words. For example, your friend says that he wants to succeed in the exam, however, he is afraid that the exam will be too hard. You can tell him “I see that you want to be successful and you want to get a fair reward for studying a lot.” This takes the attention from the problem created by his words and shows the intention behind his words, which is positive. On the other hand, redefining can be used as a suggestive way as well. To illustrate, “Do you think exam questions will contain questions that are too difficult for your level, or are you worried that you have not studied enough?” would be redefining the sentence of your friend. After hearing the answer, you may try to find a solution according to that or continue the conversation in different ways, according to what your friend is afraid of. This language leads the conversation in a more positive way and changes the perception of the other person. These techniques of presuppositions are also used in therapy and hypnosis. For example, Erickson asks the question “Do you want to tell me what is bothering you now or would you rather wait a while?” to his patient (Bandler et al., 1996). In this way, he suggests that the patient should tell the problem, the only difference is his patient can choose the time that he will tell the problem. Suggestiveness in this sentence leads the patient to answer according to the question. These illustrations signify the importance of presuppositions in changing perceptions of people. In this way, language becomes suggestive and directive. Another point of view about presuppositions is they are either semantic or pragmatic (Karttunen, 1973). In the semantic presuppositions, if sentence B is true, then sentence A can be true or not true. In this type, presuppositions’ only purpose is connecting two sentences. However, pragmatic presuppositions have speakers and listeners, the one who creates the presupposition is the speaker. If the speaker says one thing is true, then the listener should believe it. To illustrate, sentence A is “All of Mary’s friends have blue eyes.”. This sentence’s presupposition is that Mary has friends (sentence B). Therefore, if the listener believes that sentence A is true, then he or she should also believe sentence B is true. Another example may be “Have Anna stopped running every day?” (Dilts, 2017). This sentence presupposes that Anna has already been running every day. Lewis (1979) also supports this notion, he says that if the content of the presupposition is new for the listeners, then they take it as the truth without suspicion. This means the audience takes for granted that Mary has friends or Anna has been running every day. As Sbisà (2021) has said these presuppositions act as persuasions sometimes. Therefore, if the presupposition is pragmatic, it means that these sentences are suggestive and the language is directive. Normally, the directiveness of language and the way that it suggests something happens due to the speaker. However, this article looks at how listeners can create new meanings from what they have heard (Schwenter & Waltereit, 2010). They suggest that listeners can play an active role in the conversation and make interpretations due to the presuppositions. For example, the listener hears the sentence: “I should take my brother to the shopping mall.”. The fact that the speaker has a brother becomes the common ground for the listener. If the speaker does not involve presuppositions and tells the sentence like “I have a brother. I should take him to the shopping mall.”, then the listener does not interpret anything. However, it is neither an economical way of speaking nor does it sound natural. These presuppositions can be used strategically as well (Schwenter & Waltereit, 2010). If the speaker wants to keep the important information in the background, he or she can use this. For example, this sentence by von Fintel (2000): “Dad, I forgot to tell you that my fiancée and I are moving to Seattle next week.” This sentence keeps the fact that the daughter is engaged with her boyfriend in the background, however, the listener may think that it is so important and a conversation can occur because of this sentence. As the examples demonstrate, listeners can take what they think from the sentence as the speaker talks with presuppositions. Presuppositions make life easier for both the speakers and listeners. The people who are listening to the conservation without knowing much about the situation can join the conversation easily with the use of presuppositions. However, presuppositions also have a negative side. People do not question what they have been told and accept the presupposition as the truth, even if it is not true (Vallauri, 2021). This trait of presuppositions is called “unchallengeability” by Givón (1982). Moreover, Erickson and Mattson (1981) explain how this phenomenon occurs by conducting an experiment called the “Moses Illusion Test”. In this experiment, the researcher asks this question: “How many animals of each kind did Moses take on the Ark?”. The answer is surprising since most of the participants answer “2”. It shows that they did not question the presupposition, which is the act of taking animals to the Ark. However, the one who did this action was not Moses, he was Noah. The participants only focused on the kinds of animals (as asked by the question) and did not see the error in the sentence. Another example supports this evidence of unchallangeability as well. In the advertisement of Trenitalia, they have used the sentence “the signature of Italian high speed” (Vallauri, 2021). This sounds like the brand is the only one that represents high-speed trains in Italy, which is actually not true. However, the presupposition in this sentence makes it unrecognizable for the people in Italy and they do not question the advertisement, they believe it. Since the acceptance of presuppositions by people without questioning is easy, Loftus (1975, p. 572) says that they are effective about telling someone new information without drawing attention to the information. As a consequence, presuppositions may be dangerous for people who are learning new information, because even if it is wrong, people accept it as the truth. In this way, it can also be seen that presuppositions lead the language and make it directive. Language can be suggestive in several ways. Using hypnotic language, embedded commands and presuppositions makes the language directive. Presuppositions can be used in therapy and the way to use them may be by redefining the sentence or focusing on the intention. Moreover, presuppositions are either semantic or pragmatic. Pragmatic presuppositions makes the language suggestive, while semantic presuppositions does not. All of these sentences are created by speakers, however, listeners may also create new meanings from what they have perceived from the sentence. Last but not least, presuppositions make life easier, however, they have a negative side as well. Since people do not question presuppositions and take them for granted, it can be dangerous for them to believe in something wrong. Applications of Suggestive Language Language can be directive and suggestive in the advertisements through the usage of presuppositions. There are different techniques that advertisers use such as the interestingness function (Ge, 2011). For example, advertising that while you are driving Rolls Royce, the loudest sound you will hear will be the electric clock, is the advertisement of Rolls Royce. The presupposition of how the sound of the car makes is really low attracts people’s attention. Also the humor behind the advertisement makes people feel more included and attracted to the product. This advertisement shows the quality of Rolls Royce as well, which is another presupposition that attracts people. On the other hand, there is an enlargement function of advertisements (Ge, 2011). This makes the advertisement say more in just a few words. To illustrate “Why suffer another summer?” is an advertisement of an air conditioner brand. The presuppositions are you have suffered before in all those summers, now you do not have to suffer because you can get this air conditioner. This makes the advertisement say more than just a few words and attract people. Another example of presuppositions comes from a cosmetics brand (Yuelin & Jianguo, 2018). The advertisement says “Change your destiny”. It actually means that the product will renew the skin and maybe make the person look younger, which will lead a new and better life for the person who buys this product. These presuppositions attract the people to buy the product. In these ways, advertisements use the language’s suggestiveness and directiveness. There are other areas where language’s directiveness is used. Some of these areas are learning, therapy and newspaper editorials. Firstly, a study has investigated how students’ worldview presuppositions affect their learning (Fakudze, 2021). Students have filled an achievement test before and after the use of presuppositions in the learning strategy. According to the results of the study, students’ learnings were affected by their local worldview presuppositions. Second area is the usage of presuppositions in a therapeutic context. To illustrate, if the therapist’s method of therapy and his or her personal presuppositions match, the benefit of therapy increases for the patient (Ryan et al., 2012). Moreover, the therapist can make sense of the sessions better while using psychotherapeutic presuppositions (Simon, 2003). Saferstein (2007) also suggested that therapist’s treatment fidelity increases if the way one uses presuppositions is coherent with the therapist's method. Therefore, usage of presuppositions by the therapist affects the therapy’s effectiveness and helpfulness for the patient. Last but not least, editors in the newspapers use the language’s suggestiveness and directiveness through presuppositions to manipulate their readers (Bonyadi, 2011). Mostly used presupposition structures are relative clause and parenthesis. For example, after explaining something to the reader, the editor puts a manipulative text into the parenthesis and the reader sees it as the truth. According to the article, this also makes the text fresh and directive. In this way, editors try to make their readers think like them and believe what they say even if it is not the truth. All of these examples about learning, therapy and newspaper editorials show how presuppositions can be used both in positive and negative ways. Either of them results in language’s directiveness and suggestiveness, affecting the perception of the listener. Language can change how people perceive the world. Speaking different languages changes people’s perception. Also, time and color perception are affected by language. Language can also alter the way people think about themselves by deletion, distortion and generalization methods. In addition, the thinking styles of people are affected by language such as gender perception, counting, orderly thinking and reasoning. Moreover, language can be directive and suggestive in many different ways. 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This article on ' Language shapes Perception ' has been contributed by Saadet Belin Atabey who is graduated in Psychology from Bilkent University. and peer reviewed by Saumya Joshi who is a psychology student from Vivekananda College, Delhi University.

Saadet and Saumya are both part of the Global Internship Research Program (GIRP), which is mentored by Anil Thomas. Saadet is interested in clinical, industrial and consumer psychology. Saumya is a psychology enthusiast. GIRP is an initiative by (International Journal of Neurolinguistics & Gestalt Psychology) IJNGP and Umang Foundation Trust to encourage young adults across our globe to showcase their research skills in psychology and to present it in creative content expression. Anil is an internationally certified NLP Master Practitioner and Gestalt Therapist. He has conducted NLP Training in Mumbai, and across 6 other countries. The NLP practitioner course is conducted twice every year. To get your NLP certification