You've seen those posters in the subway: "If You See Something, Say Something." It sounds like a reasonable summation of how language works. First we see something, then we connect it to the right word or words in our mind, and then we are able to say something about it. But can it also work backward?
Some scientists think that how we talk about a thing can influence how we perceive it. An easy way to test this is with colors, and studies in the past have shown that people are more likely to see two colors as similar if their language groups those colors together under one name. If there are more names for colors, people may be better able to tell the difference between them.
In Japanese, there are two words for blue: ao is darker blue and mizuiro is lighter blue. (These are just the common, one-name terms; obviously any English speaker with a Crayola box could come up with a dozen kinds of blue. But you're unlikely to categorize something as "cornflower" or "cerulean.")
Linguist Panos Athanasopoulos and his colleagues wanted to know if Japanese-English bilinguals would perceive blues more like English speakers or more like Japanese speakers. Would they understand blue as two colors, or one? To test this, they gathered 27 bilinguals, all native Japanese speakers who were college or graduate students in the UK. They also recruited 27 monolingual subjects; half were English speakers, and the other half were Japanese students who had just arrived in the UK to begin studying English.
The subjects were shown pairs of blue squares with varying hues and asked how similar the two colors were (on a scale of 1 to 10). There were 10 different blues used in there experiment, and all of them had been consistently described as ao or mizuiro by Japanese speakers in a previous experiment. The researchers expected that in this experiment, Japanese speakers would see the pairs as less similar if one was ao and the other was mizuiro.
They found that English speakers, as expected, categorized their colors independently of whether they were ao or mizuiro. (So even though the two categories exist in Japanese, they're not inherent to how we see color.) Japanese monolinguals described dissimilar pairs of blues as even less similar if one was ao and the other was mizuiro. And the bilinguals were sort of in between: they were only slightly influenced by whether a color was ao or mizuiro. Learning English had apparently blurred the categories together in their perception. Analyzing their data further, the researchers found that among the bilinguals, those who had more experience in English increasingly ignored the ao/mizuiro distinction.
The researchers made sure gender wasn't affecting their results. In this country, men are notorious for not being able to distinguish between colors. Even if it's true, this study reminds us that a difference in perception doesn't necessarily come down to how well your eyes work. Maybe boys in America are taught not to enjoy all the cornflowers and ceruleans and forget-me-not blues, and as a result never learn to distinguish them.
"Language is the mechanism that assists the influence of culture on cognition," the authors write. That is, our vocabulary influences how we perceive the world, and that vocabulary comes from the culture we live in. In the weeks and years to come, we'll see how the Japanese translate their new blues into words. Not only can we not comprehend the loss the country experienced in the earthquake and tsunami, or the danger they feel from the ongoing nuclear crisis--but we wouldn't even experience it the same way if we were there.
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