Language shapes what we see

Language shapes the way we see the world. For example, the metaphors used to describe a concept like crime can shape the way people reason about it; native speakers of different languages tend to conceptualize time in ways consistent with their language; and when an object (say, a chair) is assigned the feminine grammatical gender in one language and the masculine gender in another, speakers of the former language actually think of that object as more feminine than speakers of the latter.

But new research (here’s the pdf) shows that the language we speak literally affects the way we see the world. By tracking people’s eye movements as they watched scenes unfold, researchers found that speakers tended to fixate more on parts of the scene that their language would require them to encode when communicating, relative to speakers of another language.

The experiment included German and Korean speakers. One way these two languages differ is in how they refer to spatial relationships between objects. In German (as in English), there’s a word for containment (in, which means the same as it does in English), which contrasts with the word used for one object supporting another (in German, auf, analogous to on in English). Preposition use in Korean isn’t dictated by whether one object contains or supports the other; instead, different prepositions are used depending on the tightness of the fit of the relationship. For example, putting a cap on a pen is a tight fit, which Korean describes with the word kkita. This contrasts with putting an apple in a bowl, which is a loose fit, so the preposition netha would be used instead (though the authors note that netha tends to be used for loose containment while notha is used for loose support, the line is a bit more blurred than in English or German).

In German, then, the most relevant part of a spatial relationship (for communication purposes) is whether one object contains or supports the other. In Korean, the most relevant part of a relationship is the tightness of fit. The researchers predicted that German and Korean speakers may habitually pay closer attention to certain parts of a scene — the ones their language requires them to communicate — than others.

In the experiment, participants watched videos of objects coming in contact with each other (screenshots are below), while the researchers tracked their eye movements. Participants always saw a pair (one video followed by a second) and rated how similar the two videos were to each other. Importantly, participants were not told which dimension their similarity ratings should be based on — this was for them to decide on their own.

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Consistent with language practices, Korean speakers based their similarity ratings on tightness of fit — for example, videos from the second and third rows above (both showing tight fits, and therefore typically described using kkita), were seen as more similar than the first and second, or the third and fourth were (both of which would include one kkita video and one netha or notha video). German speakers, on the other hand, based their ratings on containment vs. support. For them, the first and second (both described by auf) or the third and fourth (in) were more similar than the second and third (auf vs. in). Again, it’s especially relevant that participants were not told to use their language practices to determine similarity; they were simply encouraged to determine how similar different pairs were to each other, and their language practices guided them in this task.

The really novel part of this study, though, is in the eye-tracking. The researchers found that German speakers spent more time looking at the base figure (the bowl, block, or tray that the second object would sit on or in) than Korean speakers did, probably because that object contains more information for a person who needs to determine whether the relationship will be a supportive (on) or containment (in) one, which is what Germans habitually have to encode. Instead of looking at that base figure as much, Korean speakers looked more at the one that did the resting on or in, and particularly looked at the area where the objects intersected, which again holds the most information for speakers of a language that requires communicating the tightness of fit.

Even though participants were not watching these videos in order to communicate about them, their viewing patterns still reflected the tendencies of their languages. They have years of experience needing to pay attention to containment vs. support or tightness vs. looseness, so they now approach the world with a predisposition to look for those same characteristics that their language encodes.

This finding may not have huge practical consequences. People’s vision isn’t impaired by what their language encodes or doesn’t. But the study does show that our attention can be influenced by our language. Visual attention is a pretty low-level process, in the sense that it’s constant and so much of it happens without conscious awareness. That, I think, is why this study is so cool — even when people are watching simple videos of objects, their language shapes the way they approach the situation. Just imagine what our language does for us when we actually go out and navigate the world.


Cover photo by MabelAmber. CC.

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What’s going on in our minds when language shapes how we think?

This is the second post in a two-part series on a new paper my advisor Lera Boroditsky and I published that shows that learning a new way to talk about time creates new ways of thinking about it. You can check out the first post here.


A lot of psychology research measures behavior — what people do, often in a lab experiment — as a way of understanding what they’re thinking.

For example, in some of my favorite work by Paul Thibodeau and Lera Boroditsky, participants read about a crime problem in a fictional city. The problem was described metaphorically, either as a beast or as a virus. After reading about the problem, participants indicated what the city officials should do to solve the crime problem. Those who had read that crime was a beast were more likely to suggest punitive solutions, as one would likely suggest if a literal beast were ravaging the city, than those who read that crime was a virus. In this experiment, the researchers measured people’s behaviors — their suggestions for dealing with the crime — as a way of understanding how the crime metaphors shaped their thoughts.

Thought is a pretty tricky thing to measure, especially when it’s about high-level topics like crime, and our behaviors give researchers a useful glimpse into the mind. But behavioral evidence still leaves us asking what’s actually going on in people’s minds when metaphors shape the way we think.

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In our recent work, participants learned new ways to talk about time. We then measured their subconscious associations between different parts of space and different aspects of time, and their behavior suggested that they now thought about time in ways that were consistent with how they learned to talk about it.

We wanted to learn more about how this was happening. We call this new way of thinking — associating earlier events with either higher or lower parts of space, depending on the metaphors a person learned — a new representation. We think of this new representation as a new timeline a person has in mind. We wondered whether this new representation that people acquired through the metaphors they learned in our lab was a kind that relied on language while they were using it.

For example, we know that counting items is a kind of representation or cognitive routine that does require a person to engage their language capacities in their mind, even when they’re not talking out loud. Intuitively this makes sense — when you ask yourself what’s going on in your mind when you count an array of objects, it might make sense that you’re actually saying “one, two, three…” in your head as you count. Researchers have indeed been able to show that this is what’s going on in our minds when we count by having people memorize strings of letters (which requires them to rehearse the letters in their head, saying something like “F, J, D, C, P, R” silently to themselves while also trying to count objects. Under this condition, often referred to as verbal interference, people (specifically MIT students) struggle to even count an array of dots accurately. This result is taken as evidence that counting objects relies on our ability to engage in a linguistic routine in our heads, since the verbal interference, which also relies on the ability to engage in a linguistic routine, disrupted counting performance.

When participants learned new metaphors for time in our experiment, we also wanted to find out whether their newly learned mental timelines also required a linguistic routine for the metaphors to exert their effects on mental timelines. To that end, we had participants complete the typical task measuring their subconscious space-time associations while they were mentally rehearsing a string of letters, as the researchers in the counting work did. The mental rehearsal taxed their linguistic working memory, leaving them unable to engage these linguistic cognitive resources for other tasks. If they needed to engage those resources for the new metaphors to shape how they think about time, we should see that they no longer associate the parts of space and time that their metaphors suggested when they undergo verbal interference at the same time.

We found that even under verbal interference, people showed mental timelines that were consistent with the new metaphors they learned in our lab. In other words, learning a new way to talk about time shaped how people thought about it, and it was not just because people were adopting a new routine in their minds, subvocalizing to themselves, “earlier is up, later is down” (or vice versa) while doing the main task. Language can shape non-linguistic thought patterns.

But what is going on in our minds when we learn new metaphors for time that shape how we think about it? Are we imagining earlier events (like breakfast) as being physically above or below later events (dinner)? We’re still not sure, but there’s no shortage of mysteries to work on to better understand how language shapes our thoughts about topics as ubiquitous as time.

Much more than a way of talking: Metaphors in language shape how we think

We gather a lot of knowledge through our physical experiences in the world: what a good steak tastes like, how to get from home to work, or how it feels to be caught in a downpour. But at the same time, many of the topics that are most central to our lives, like the concepts of love, justice, or time, aren’t things we can directly experience, for example by seeing, touching, or tasting them. How, then, do we make sense of them?

One way we develop these concepts in our minds is by thinking about them in terms of concepts we do have direct experiences with. We use metaphors like love is a journey to conceptualize love in terms of a more concrete idea, a journey. Research I conducted with my advisor Lera Boroditsky shows that linguistic metaphors can actually cause us to think about concepts like time in new ways.

In our lab, we taught participants new ways of talking about time that used vertical terms to talk about sequences of events. For example, some people learned that earlier events take place above later ones. They were told things like Tuesday is higher than Wednesday, and When we eat dinner, breakfast is above us. Other people learned the opposite system of metaphors, that earlier events take place below later ones.

After learning these metaphors, participants completed a task that measures how much they subconsciously associate different parts of space with different aspects of time. This task didn’t require language to complete it (people saw pictures and pressed buttons to indicate the order that events happened in), so there was no encouragement for people to even connect this task with the earlier part of the experiment in which they learned new ways to talk about time.

We found that people associated space with time in ways that were consistent with the new metaphors they had just learned. Those who learned that earlier events happen above later ones tended to associate earlier events with higher space than later events and vice versa.

Learning a new way to talk about time creates new ways of thinking about it.

This work is based on a foundation of research pointing to similarities between the way we talk and think about time. Across languages, people often use spatial language to talk about time. For example in English, we can have a long meeting or time can fly by, we look forward to the future and back on the past, and it’s appropriate to say either that we’re approaching a deadline or that the deadline is approaching us. In all of these cases, the metaphors we use to talk about time suggest that passage of time is akin to movement through space.

Using space to talk about time is not specific to English. Many languages include similar metaphors, though different aspects of space can be associated with different aspects of time. For example, the Aymara, a group in South America, refer to the past as ahead of them and the future as behind, a reversal of the English convention. Similarly, speakers of Mandarin Chinese can use vertical language — the same words that mean up and down — when talking about time.

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We don’t just use spatial language to talk about time, but we actually think about time in ways that are consistent with the specific spatial metaphors our language uses. For example, English speakers lean slightly forward when thinking about the future and back when thinking about the past, and demonstrate subconscious associations between space in front of the body and the future and space behind the body and the past on reaction time tasks. These studies suggest that we’re often drawing on our knowledge of space when we think about time.

Does the language we use to talk about time (like the future ahead of us and past behind) cause us to actually think of time in consistent ways, or do we use these spatial metaphors because we naturally think about the future in front of us and the past behind? This is pretty much a textbook chicken-and-egg problem.

Both possibilities could be true, but existing research can’t shed light on causal relationships. Showing that Mandarin speakers think about time vertically (consistent with their metaphors in language) and English speakers do not¬†doesn’t tell us that different metaphors cause differences in thought — there are many ways in which two groups of people who speak different languages will differ, and it’s impossible to know whether any of those factors actually lead to an observed difference in thinking about time between the two groups. In order to make the causal claim — to know whether metaphors in language can actually shape the way people think about time — we needed to randomly assign participants to conditions. By teaching all participants a new way of talking in the lab, that’s exactly what we did — we randomly assigned some to the group that learned that earlier events are above later ones and others to the group that learned that earlier events are below. This way we could be sure that the metaphors participants learned, and not some other uncontrolled difference between the two groups, was the reason the two groups differed in the way they associated vertical space and time.

This work shows that metaphors in language can shape the way people think. In fact, learning a new way of talking about time can foster new ways of thinking about this topic that is central to our everyday lives.


In the second (and final) post in this series, I’ll dive more into what was actually going on in people’s minds when these new metaphors shaped how they think about time.

Here’s the link to the original article

What if…?

I think a lot about linguistic relativity– the idea that the language I speak might profoundly influence the way I perceive the world, conceptualize it, and/or habitually act in it is so seductive. Yesterday I was listening to a “Talk the Talk” podcast called “Time in Amondawa,” and I started thinking about what life would be like if I spoke another language. In it, the linguistic Chris Sinha argues that the Amondawa tribe has no term for the abstract concept of “time,” and they don’t use spatial metaphors to talk about it, as we do in most languages (things like “waiting a long time,” or “looking forward to the future”). In addition, as in many languages, their number system consists of “one,” “two,” and “many.” That’s it.

Image: http://www.yourlanguageplace.com/how-language-can-shape-the-perception-of-time/
Image: http://www.yourlanguageplace.com/how-language-can-shape-the-perception-of-time/

Cultural differences aside, what would life be like if we had no way of talking about time or quantifying anything?! When I think about my thoughts over the course of the day, I think most of them revolve around one of those two things (or often both, when I think things like “I only have 17 minutes to get to this appointment”). Since I mainly define myself by my habitual thoughts, and I do believe that lacking ways of expressing certain concepts can dramatically alter the way you think about them, who would I be? What kind of things would we talk about? Our culture and society have evolved with time and numbers as a foundation. Would it still have been possible to become as advanced as we have without them?