How the language you speak changes your worldview

Just as methodical exercise gives your body biological benefits, mentally mastering two or more languages gives your brain cognitive benefits.

Research recently published in Psychological Science studied German-English bilingual people and monolingual people to learn how different linguistic patterns affected their reactions in the experiments.

First it should be said that the global vision of German speakers is holistic – they tend to view the situation as a whole – while English speakers tend to concentrate on the situation and focus only on the action.

The linguistic basis of this trend seems to come from the way the different grammars place actions in time. English requires its speakers to grammatically mark events that are happening by necessarily using the morpheme ‘-ing’: “I am playing the piano and I cannot come to the phone” or “I was playing the piano when the phone rang”. German does not have this feature.

In our study we also found that these cross-linguistic differences extend beyond the use of language itself to nonverbal categorisation of events.

We showed some film clips to monolingual English and German speakers depicting people walking, cycling, running or driving. After each set of three clips we asked the subjects to decide whether a scene with an ambiguous goal (a woman walking toward a parked car) was more like a goal-oriented scene (a woman entering a building) or a scene with no goal (a woman walking along a road in the countryside).

The monolingual German speakers related these scenes with the goal-oriented scenes more often than the monolingual English speakers. This difference reflects the one found in the use of language: German speakers are more likely to focus on the possible outcomes of people’s actions.

When it was the turn of the bilingual people, they seemed to switch between these perspectives based on the linguistic context in which they performed the tasks. We discovered that the Germans who spoke English fluently focused on the goal of the action in the same way as any other native speaker given the test in German in their home country. However, a similar group of bilingual German-English speakers tested in the UK focused on the action itself just like the native English speakers.

In another group of bilingual German-English speakers we got them to focus on one language when watching the clips by making them repeat strings of numbers in German or English. Diverting attention from one language appeared to increase the influence of the other.

When “blocking” English, the bilingual people acted like typical Germans and categorised the ambiguous clips more focussed on the goal. When blocking German, the bilingual subjects acted like English speakers and categorised the ambiguous clips with open ended situations. When the subjects were surprised by changing the language of the interference numbers halfway through the experiment, their attention to the goals and processes also changed.

People say that they feel like a different person depending on the language they use and that the relevance of the expression of certain feelings varies depending on the language used.

When judging risk, bilingual people tend to take more economically rational decisions in a second language. Unlike the first language, it seems that second languages tend to lack the emotional and confusing rooted bias that exaggeratedly influences how risks and benefits are perceived. Hence the language you speak in can really affect how you think.