Does the language one think in or speak in determine how one perceived events? Does it affect how one notices things? A debate has raged on for over 70 years about whether language affects how people think.
Some things seem to be better expressed in different languages. Since the 1940’s, cognitive scientists have debated if native language determines what people think or how they process things. For example, some languages emphasize different aspects of actions and their consequences. Germans tell stories that focus on beginnings, middles, and ends. English speakers, in contrast, tend to focus on main actions or events.
Several studies examined different aspects of this phenomenon. The first found that Russians are quicker to identify different shades of blue; a second reported that Japanese speakers identify or group things by material instead of shape; a third revealed that in contrast to English speakers, those who speak Korean tend to focus on how closely things fit together.
A new study expands this debate and considers whether speaking multiple languages gives one multiple perspectives or widens one's perspective. This study tested German and English speakers. Researchers first tested their hypothesis by showing 15 native speakers of each language video clips of people walking, running, biking, or driving. Then the researchers asked participants to match the clips with videos that either had goals or no goals at all. The Germans named the correct connection 40 percent of the time, while English speakers only identified 25 percent of the connections correctly. When they administered the same test with Germans fluent in English, these speakers tended to be as goal – focused as their monolingual counterparts.
The exact same thing happened when the English speakers fluent in German were tested.
Native language certainly influences people's thinking process. It’s evident from these studies that just switching between spoken languages can effect a person’s focus. This last study shows that just switching between languages can influence what people focus on. In particular, recent research reveals that studies in the future will expand this research to speakers of more than two languages. The benefits could prove endless!