Scientists Probe an Enduring Question: Can Language Shape Perception?

Picture a sunlit Grecian sea or the deep hues of Santorini’s rooftops. They’re both called “blue” in English. But to Greek speakers, the lighter hue is “ghalazio” and the darker color “ble.” When researchers showed native speakers of both languages squares of light and dark blue, they found the Greek speakers viewed the two colors as more unlike each other. Did a different language influence how people viewed the two colors?

The idea that language can shape perception and thought — a hypothesis formally known as “linguistic relativity” — harkens back to the 1930s. This hypothesis asserts that language doesn’t just express ideas, it actively shapes them, determining how we understand the world around us. Initially met with great interest, this idea fell out of favor by the 1960s due to a lack of scientific evidence.

Still, the notion refuses to die. Many researchers now believe that language does play a role in some aspects of cognitive activity, but the nature and extent of this role remains frustratingly murky. “We’d like to be able to say: look we tested it, and here’s the answer,” says Terry Regier, a linguistics researcher at the University of California Berkeley. But evidence to support some version of linguistic relativity “doesn’t replicate reliably.”

Now, cognitive scientists are applying new technologies to resolve the issue. Their methods can tap directly into the brain to track blood flow and electrical activity in response to sensory input, allowing researchers to investigate the neural mechanisms by which language works to influence cognitive function. Additionally, research groups have begun to study young infants. These pudgy-cheeked humans allow us to understand the brain’s capacity to process sensory information before words are learned. Taken together, these experiments point in a surprising direction: Language does, indeed, influence our ability to perceive the world around us.

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