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Speaking a second language may change how you see the world


German speakers are likely to imagine where this woman is going, whereas English speakers may focus more on her journey. As for Bilinguals, they should be able to have it both ways.

Science confirms that people practising speaking a second language have different viewpoints, even to the extent that true bilinguals have more flexible thought patterns. This idea has been debated within cognitive science since the 1940s, and recent studies confirm that a person’s native language has an influence on the way in which thought process occurs.

Research studies concluded that people capable of speaking a second language see the world from different viewpoints. It has been found that Russian speakers distinguish tones of the colour blue faster than English speakers, while Japanese speakers group objects by their material fabrication rather than shape. When it comes down to visual perceptions, the way a German speaker views an image is different to the way an English speaker views the same image, leading to totally different conclusions.

Critics do argue these results are more likely indicative of cultural differences or merely laboratory conclusions, but another new study focused on bilinguals and found that language does have an important role to play in how the unconscious mind perceives the world. This flexibility of thought pattern is apparent when images are displayed to such people. The study focused upon bilingual English and German speakers and came to surprising conclusions, regarding how they displayed flexibility to view the same image in two ways.

This new study by Panas Athanasopoulos from Lancaster University set out to discover whether bilingual English and German subjects could be considered to view situations in different ways depending on circumstances, focusing upon ways in which they viewed events. In the English language it’s possible to grammatically situate actions within a timeframe, which is impossible in German,meaning German speakers focus on specifying the beginning, middle and ending of events.

This study found that German speakers shown different video clips focused upon goal-oriented descriptors, even when these images were ambiguous in nature. This was not the case for the majority of English speakers. Where bilingual speakers were tested, they switched their mind focus depending upon language being spoken. So native German speakers, who were fluent in English, were just as goal-focused as other Germans when tested in German in their home country, however, this was not the case with bilingual Germans tested in English while staying in the UK. The results from the bilingual Germans tested in English were just as action-oriented as a native English speaker would display. Testing also focused upon switching language part way through the process, this showed similar results again. The test subjects reacted in the manner appropriate to language spoken.

This fascinating study does lead to indications that speaking a second language can give greater flexibility to anybody.

For more details on the study, please refer to Brain & BehaviorSocial Sciences, by Nicholas Weiler, March 2015 – Science| DOI: 10.1126/science.aab0331

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