Your Native Language Affects What You See

Being a native English speaker – like most things – has both its pros and cons. In most places, people speak at least a little bit of your language. The result: easy communication with most people in most situations. On the downside, it’s quite hard to bitch about people out in the open since there’s a higher chance someone will understand you.

However, another sad thing is that languages are often ignored as part of education for native English speakers; or, at least they were in my school. I was taught both French and German for 2-3 years with a weird schedule – one semester of French, then German in the next one – and was never really encouraged to take them further. I was always reassured that it’s “not necessary as everyone speaks English”. 

The saddest thing about this is that after learning German later on in my life, I really realised just how interesting languages are. And, after reading about a recent study conducted at the Humboldt-Universität Berlin, my interest developed further. 

Language and visual consciousness

According to the study, our native languages are one of the forces which determine what we consciously perceive. The results come from tests they did on Russian, German and Greek native speakers. Both Russian and Greek have two distinctive colour categories for ‘light blue’ and ‘dark blue’ which German (like English) does not. To make this more clear, in Russian or Greek, ‘light blue’ and ‘dark blue’ are different colours and are not differentiated by an adjective.

In the experiment, different shapes were placed on backgrounds of varying colours. The research participants had to press a button when they saw a select few shapes. The shapes themselves were also coloured. The different shape-background colours were any combination of dark green and light green, green and blue or dark blue and light blue. 

A blend of colours. Do we observe different aspects differently based on our native language? Source: Art by Lønfeldt.

It was found that in all languages, the green on blue/blue on green shapes were easier to detect. However, in Greek and Russian the blue/blue contrast was easier to detect than the green/green. For German the blue/blue and green/green results were identical. The implication therefore is that the native language of the participants – and the way they categorise colours – affected the way they recognise different visual stimuli. 


So what could this mean? Honestly, I don’t really know. The topic isn’t my speciality, and from what I could see in the scientific literature, there isn’t a lot of evidence discussing the consequences. Of course, that doesn’t stop me wondering. 

Is there some kind of survival reason behind why these languages categorised colours in the way they do? Does the ability to visualise things differently provide advantages in certain subjects? Is this one of the reasons we couldn’t agree on whether that dress was black and blue or gold and white? When I contacted the author of the paper, he told me that he was going on parental leave. So I guess we’re just going to have to wait to find out. 

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Jack McGovan is a recent graduate in chemistry with a specialisation in ‘Energy and Sustainable Chemistry’ from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Following a job as a student journalist covering the energy transition, he has moved to Berlin where he is following his passion for working towards creating a fairer and more sustainable world. Seeing a gap in the way in which the world of science was communicated, he founded Delta-S. By writing source based content, he hopes to communicate his findings to a wider audience.