Edge asked prominent scholars a great question, What Have You Changed Your Mind About?
Lera Boroditsky, in Cognitive Psychology at Stanford, called her post, “Do our languages shape the nuts and bolts of perception, the very way we see the world?” (And just for the record, I got turned onto this great collection at Edge by kerim’s post, Rethinking Language and Culture, over at Savage Minds, so please check what kerim has to say!)
Here’s the opening Boroditsky provides us:
“I used to think that languages and cultures shape the ways we think. I suspected they shaped the ways we reason and interpret information. But I didn’t think languages could shape the nuts and bolts of perception, the way we actually see the world. That part of cognition seemed too low-level, too hard-wired, too constrained by the constants of physics and physiology to be affected by language.”
More interesting, however, is how experimental results change her mind:
“We did one experiment after another, and each time to my surprise and annoyance, we found consistent cross-linguistic differences. They were there even when people could see all the colors at the same time when making their decisions. They were there even when people had to make objective perceptual judgments. They were there when no language was involved or necessary in the task at all. They were there when people had to reply very quickly. We just kept seeing them over and over again, and the only way to get the cross-linguistic differences to go away was to disrupt the language system. If we stopped people from being able to fluently access their language, then the cross-linguistic differences in perception went away.”
Her conclusion: “I set out to show that language didn’t affect perception, but I found exactly the opposite. It turns out that languages meddle in very low-level aspects of perception, and without our knowledge or consent shape the very nuts and bolts of how we see the world.”
Here’s the info on one relevant paper:
Winawer J, Witthoft N, Frank MC, Wu L, Wade AR, Boroditsky L. 2007. Russian blues reveal effects of language on color discrimination. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 104(19) (May 8):7780-5.
Abstract: English and Russian color terms divide the color spectrum differently. Unlike English, Russian makes an obligatory distinction between lighter blues (“goluboy”) and darker blues (“siniy”). We investigated whether this linguistic difference leads to differences in color discrimination. We tested English and Russian speakers in a speeded color discrimination task using blue stimuli that spanned the siniy/goluboy border. We found that Russian speakers were faster to discriminate two colors when they fell into different linguistic categories in Russian (one siniy and the other goluboy) than when they were from the same linguistic category (both siniy or both goluboy). Moreover, this category advantage was eliminated by a verbal, but not a spatial, dual task. These effects were stronger for difficult discriminations (i.e., when the colors were perceptually close) than for easy discriminations (i.e., when the colors were further apart). English speakers tested on the identical stimuli did not show a category advantage in any of the conditions. These results demonstrate that (i) categories in language affect performance on simple perceptual color tasks and (ii) the effect of language is online (and can be disrupted by verbal interference).
And you can also get Lera’s papers online: http://www-psych.stanford.edu/~lera/papers/