100 Trillion Connections: How Does Language Change Our Perception of Reality?

Anya DunaifOctober 29, 2016The WordThe Big Question

Imagine describing the world using just five colors, or explaining a series of occurrences in a system where time moves vertically as opposed to horizontally.

How different would the world look if you had always known colors or time to be such? Would your perception be altered? Would only the way in which you describe your view differ?

The idea that language influences perception, and furthermore that speakers of different languages view the world in distinct ways, has become increasingly popular over the past century. I believe that on the most basic level, perception is not influenced by language. While it is hard to think without words, it may be possible on a subconscious level, in images, emotions, and sounds. People employ language to describe their complex thoughts. However, our reactions and emotions are often unexplainable. On the other hand, higher-level thinking must be influenced by language in some way, since language defines the terms necessary for such ideas to exist.

Given that there is still so much to learn about the brain, it is difficult to quantify the dissimilarities of individual perception. One area we can study is color identification. For example, while speakers of English and most other languages have words for eleven major colors (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, pink, brown, grey, black, and white), members of the Himba tribe in Namibia only have five color categories. The word serandu in Himba encapsulates what an English speaker would call red, orange, and pink. A study comparing how British and Himba children learn, remember, and identify colors supports “the theory that color terms are learned relative to language and culture.”

I believe the world is segmented and classified by individual languages or language groups, though I wonder whether Himba children do distinguish between red and pink, yet lack the words to say so?

One English speaker may call two different shades “pink,” while another says they are “fuchsia” and “bubblegum.” The former may be able to see that there are two shades, but still describe them using the same word. Even between speakers of the same language there can be disagreement on color categorization. But do the learned color terms truly change how people see things?

For British and Himba children who have not yet learned colors, “the pattern of memory errors . . . was very similar.” As they grew and learned, the children’s color memory seemed linked to the color terms they used. This supports the idea that language influences perception. On the other hand, language may only alter how individuals describe their surroundings, while the images that their brains receive are independent of the words used to relay them.

Whether language alters people’s vision or only how they explain what they see, does it change the way in which they conceive of the abstract? For instance, English speakers generally speak of time as moving horizontally, while Mandarin speakers tend to describe it as moving vertically. An English speaker would say the past is backwards in time, while a Mandarin speaker would say it is upwards. The way in which people bilingual in English and Mandarin describe time depends on which language they learned first and how old they were when they began to learn the second.

I have been studying Mandarin for more than five years, and I still have a more difficult time remembering which word signifies the past or the future than I do recounting the words for left and right or the cardinal directions. Even though the words are relatively simple, sometimes I have to pause and ask myself, “Is last week above or below me in time?”

I answer, often subconsciously looking at the ceiling, like I’m looking back in time, back into my memories.

“Last week has already happened, so it is above.”

I also visualize the characters “上” (shàng, which signifies the past) and “下” (xià, which signifies the future).

I think of the present as a long horizontal line that is in both of the characters, and of time as a vertical line — reaching into the past in the case of shàng and moving down into the future in the case of xià. The words are harder for me to remember how to use correctly, because they require me to think about my position in time in a new way, evidencing that language does influence our understanding of the abstract.

Interior perception and the sharing of that perception are very different. The first requires no communication, and the second necessitates a medium — a language or a painting, dance, film, or sculpture. While words may be the primary way of expressing our minds, they are by no means the only way.

Describing reality, like distinguishing between colors and deciding the direction that time flows, is subjective and influenced by language, culture, and innumerable factors. I believe that language itself is not responsible for some fundamental differences in perception, but language does influence how individuals conceive of the conceptual and express their view of the world.

Every action or experience changes you. Your neurons are always forming new pathways; therefore, the language(s) you speak and hear physically alter your brain in specific ways. Some of these new pathways must form in certain parts of the brain that influence vision, hearing, touch, smell, memory, and other areas related to an individual’s experience of reality, linking words to ideas.

I cannot answer the question of how language influences our perception of reality, but I can say that it does in some way — a way that will remain obscure until we know more about the 100 trillion connections existing between all the neurons that comprise a human brain.

Anya Dunaif is a senior at Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn, New York. Her interests include visual art, film, writing, science, and languages (Mandarin, Ancient Greek, and Latin).