Bilinguals get the blues

( -- Learning a foreign language literally changes the way we see the world, according to new research.

Panos Athanasopoulos, of Newcastle University, has found that bilingual speakers think differently to those who only use one language.

And you don’t need to be fluent in the language to feel the effects - his research showed that it is language use, not proficiency, which makes the difference.

Working with both Japanese and English speakers, he looked at their language use and proficiency, along with the length of time they had been in the country, and matched this against how they perceived the colour blue.

Colour perception is an ideal way of testing bilingual concepts because there is a huge variation between where different languages place boundaries on the colour spectrum.

In Japanese, for example, there are additional basic terms for light blue (mizuiro) and dark blue (ao) which are not found in English.

Previous research has shown that people are more likely to rate two colours to be more similar if they belong to the same linguistic category.

“We found that people who only speak Japanese distinguished more between light and dark blue than English speakers,” said Dr Athanasopoulos, whose research is published in the current edition of Bilingualism: Language and Cognition. “The degree to which Japanese-English bilinguals resembled either norm depended on which of their two languages they used more frequently.”

Most people tend to focus on how to do things such as order food or use public transport when they learn another language to help them get by, but this research has shown that there is a much deeper connection going on.

“As well as learning vocabulary and grammar you’re also unconsciously learning a whole new way of seeing the world,” said Dr Athanasopoulos. “There’s an inextricable link between language, culture and cognition.

“If you’re learning language in a classroom you are trying to achieve something specific, but when you’re immersed in the culture and speaking it, you’re thinking in a completely different way.”

He added that a second language gives businesses a unique insight into the people they are trading with, suggesting that EU relations could be dramatically improved if we all took the time to learn a little of each other’s language rather than relying on English as the lingua-franca.

“If anyone needs to be motivated to learn a new language they should consider the international factor,” he said. “The benefits you gain are not just being able to converse in their language - it also gives you a valuable insight into their culture and how they think, which gives you a distinct business advantage.

“It can also enable you to understand your own better and gives you the opportunity to reflect on your own culture, added Dr Athanasopoulos, who speaks both Greek and English.

More information: Panos Athanasopoulos, Lubica Damjanovic, Andrea Krajciova and Miho Sasaki (2011). Representation of colour concepts in bilingual cognition: the case of Japanese blues in Bilingualism: language and cognition, Volume 14, pp 9-17 doi:10.1017/s1366728909990046
Provided by Newcastle University
Citation: Bilinguals get the blues (2011, March 15) retrieved 23 August 2019 from
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Mar 16, 2011
There is no word for Dark Blue in English, so I guess I'll never know what 'ao' means...

This is a very common error that linguists make ~ they assume that if an adjective is needed to modify a noun then English speakers are somehow ignorant of the entire class of objects described by that phrase.

But that isn't even true for English speakers. If we only have one word for snow that doesn't mean that other types of snow can not be understood, perceived or described. Indeed, skiers typically use single word descriptors drawing upon the snow's likeness eg 'powder', 'sago' (little balls or pellets of snow), ice/icy, corrugated ice, slush (like snow after rain) and so on.

In industries dealing with colour (eg art, painter-decorators, clothing designers) where more single word descriptors are needed for hues then there are tens, hundreds and thousands of single word descriptors eg in the English dictionary we find azure (deep blue, like the sky), cyan (light greenish-blue), and so on.

Mar 16, 2011
there is no human verbal description the poor parrot can say to you to convey the perception the parrot perceives.

It could say that it is percieving light at a wavelenghts shorter than 400 nm but longer than 10 nm. Or, it could simply say "ultraviolet".

We may not be able to percieve that directly, but we still understand what it means, and can relate to any cultural or psychological aspects involved if the good parrot would explain it.

Besides, people with a lens replacement due to cataract have reported to be able to see ultraviolet light. They describe it as a shiny silvery quality to the light.

Mar 16, 2011

To convey perception you need more than all the human languages combined.
You need the human senses of perception as well.

You can't convey subjective perception - it's impossible even between human individuals. Nobody sees the color red for example in exactly the same way, even though we have mostly identical eyes, because it would also require that two individuals have identical brains that come to identical conclusions about how the sensation is. It is true of both people and parrots.

Objective perceptions can be shared by language trivially. When you define "Ultraviolet" as light between 10 - 400 nm, then saying that the color of some object is ultraviolet is pretty straightforwardly understood even if the person who is listening cannot percieve ultraviolet.

Mar 16, 2011
There is no word for Dark Blue in English, so I guess I'll never know what 'ao' means...
Navy, for one.

Mar 21, 2011
Any discussion of the semantics and definitions that English possesses succeed in missing the original point of the study. What the study is finding has very little to do with the simple issue of lexicon versus concept and more to do with how the cultural thinking process handles 'lexicon versus concept'. One example is the Spanish word 'macho' or 'machismo', which we can argue that many English language speakers have come to a basic understanding through borrowing it like we have from other languages. However, in Spanish, 'machismo' carries a much deeper set of connotations that are only really acquired through cultural understanding of Spanish speakers. Cultural context is the point, this study says, not lexicon size or variation.

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