Does your native language influence your perspective?

By Erin Stackowitz, Staff Writer

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Language is a powerful tool and central to modern existence. It can be used to express a variety of emotions, articulate thought, and is one vital aspect that separates humans from any other species. Although there is a myriad of languages spoken, most assume that through accurate translation the core meaning remains intact. However, psycholinguist Panos Athanasopoulos of Lancaster University in the United Kingdom uses her work to delineate how bilinguals put a different emphasis on actions and their consequences, ultimately influencing the way they think about the world.

To highlight how important language is on perspective, Athanasopoulos focused her work on the nuances between German and English. In conjunction with her work she also used additional research to guide her observations, and she pointed out studies that suggested that language can prompt speakers to pay attention to certain features of the world; Russian speakers are faster to distinguish shades of blue than English speakers (Winawer), Japanese speakers tend to group objects by material rather than shape (Imai), and Koreans focus on how tightly objects fit together (Choi). Her work aims to answer whether or not these studies reflect cultural differences between speakers or if they are inherently related to language.

Athanasopoulos’s priority was the difference in how native English speakers treated events versus how German speakers treated events. She noticed through observation that English speakers tend to only focus on the action of the sentence, whereas German speakers specify the beginnings, middles, and ends of the sentence. Athanasopoulos tested this observation when she compared the responses from the speakers of both German and English, then compared them to bilinguals. The comparison was based on how similar they thought an “ambiguous scene” (a woman walking down the street) was similar to a “clearly goal-oriented scene” (a woman walking into a building).

According to her experiment, “German speakers matched ambiguous scenes with goal-oriented scenes about 40% of the time on average, compared with 25% among English speakers.” There is a difference in where attention is paid- English speakers are centered around the action, German speakers focus on possible outcomes; bilingual speakers, however, seemed to vacillate between these perspectives based on their preferred language. When in Germany, bilingual speakers were found to be just as goal-focused as any other native speaker and when tested in English in the United Kingdom they were just as action-focused as native English speakers.

This experiment points out the importance of a second language and how it can frame one’s perception. By learning another language, one expands their outlook and creates the possibility for alternate viewpoints. Although language is just one lens in which we see the world, its influence is anything but mediocre.

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