It may not be a question that you think about in every day life, but the language you speak effects your perception on the world around you. Every thought that passes though your head and all of your sensory perceptions are effected by your language. We will be investigating how language effects color perception, syntax gender systems, and direction.

Color Perception
English is one of few languages in which similar colors are grouped together with one word. For example, light blue and dark blue would fall under the word blue. Russian, however, has two different words for these colors: siniy (dark blue) and goluboy (light blue). So in Russian culture, they are two different colors. Researchers wanted to see if the differences in the languages affected the ability to distinguish color differences. A study was set up using a computer screen, where a large square was displayed with two smaller squares underneath it. One of the two small squares matched the color of the large square. Researchers examined how long it took participants to match the colors.

external image images?q=tbn:ANd9GcRg_lf3JeEU1Z-eE0-y6owfhx4xcTe5aSu6gkAjjdpxWFL_tud3
external image images?q=tbn:ANd9GcSJQweb0rwKouLToUG2Jv3ina3wtdYzJhXtAL-ToCJfhbeHybGx
This is the Russian color siniy.
This is the Russian color goluboy.

external image blueColors.jpg
These are the twenty shades of blue used in the Russian Blues experiment.
Twenty shades of blue were used in the experiment. It turned out that Russian speakers were able to not only use objective clues to make a distinction, but they also could use the border between the two colors. For instance, if the colors were on opposite sides of the border between siniy and goluboy, Russians were able to make the distinction faster. There was no such discovery with English speakers. In general, the Russians were able to hit the button faster. This result can be traced to the color difference in the language because the test was not subjective, it can be said that the objective recognition of these colors is different for Russian and English speakers. [Deutscher, 2010]

Almost every language in the world identifies the location of objects the same way. Right now, this text is most likely in front of you. Other objects are to the left and right of you, while something is most likely behind you as well. However, one would be stuck if they tried to translate the previous paragraph into the Aboriginal language Guugu Yimithirr. To talk about objects and their location, one would have to know whether the object was north, south, east, or west of the viewer. This direction system can affect thought in two ways. Probably the most biologically intriguing effect of this is that thanks to describing things this way their entire lives, speakers of this language develop an internal biological compass and always know which way is north. This effect can be seen even when the person has been spun in a dark room with no windows, blindfolded. The other product of describing the location of objects in this way is a very communal culture, as opposed to the self-centered way of speaking that English and other languages have. [Deutcher, 2010]

Gender Systems
English is a weird language in that it doesn't have a specific gender system for normal, everyday nouns. Words like "bridge," "key," or "war" do not have specific genders in English. However, many other languages, such as German and Spanish, do have genders for those nouns, or a gender system. Gender systems have been shown to influence thought by influencing one's perceptions of the objects that those nouns represent. This could range from seeing, for example, bridges as more masculine from the language in which bridge is masculine, or a native Spanish speaker choosing a male voice for a talking fork . One article talked about these experiments in the following way:

"When speakers were asked to grade various objects on a range of characteristics, Spanish speakers deemed bridges, clocks and violins to have more “manly properties” like strength, but Germans tended to think of them as more slender or elegant. With objects like mountains or chairs, which are “he” in German but “she” in Spanish, the effect was reversed"[Deutscher, 2010].
Our demonstration today will mimic another experiment performed last year for a student science competition that will show how your perception of gender differs from the perception of gender by a native German speaker.

This is also exemplified by our video:

You may be thinking, "So what? My language subtly affects my perception of color, gender, and differentiates the way I think of direction from some far-off group of people that I'm never going to meet." Well, what about other words that may be different in different languages? What if your language affects the way you interact with others? Could difference in thought, affected by difference in native language, cause unnecessary conflict between nations? It could be some food for thought.


  • Deutscher, G. (2010). Through the language glass, why the world looks different in other languages. Metropolitan Books.

Torpey White and Lexi Galantino