It is easy to forget just how much of an impact the language we speak has on our life. We take language for granted as our means of communication, but the language we speak actually has much more impact on our lives than most of us realise. Would it surprise you to find out that the language you speak could affect things like your perception of colour, your thriftiness and even your navigational ability?

Could the language I speak affect how I perceive colour?

Research has found that yes; the language you speak can affect how you perceive colour. A 1954 study found that speakers of Zuñi, a language that doesn’t differentiate between orange and red, have a hard time telling the two colours apart! In a similar way, Russian speakers, whose language has separate words for light blue (goluboy) and dark blue (siniy), are much better than English speakers at differentiating between different shades of blue, according to a 2007 study!

Could the language I speak affect my sense of direction?

Yes! In Pormpuraaw, an Australian aboriginal community, they don’t describe things as being on your ‘left’ or ‘right’, but would instead say ‘northeast’ or ‘southwest’. Although this may seem unusual to English speakers, it is actually not uncommon for languages to discuss direction in these absolute terms, with around one-third of language taking this stance. Speakers of languages that refer to space in this more absolute way “are remarkably good at staying orientated and keeping track of where they are, even in unfamiliar landscapes”, according to Stanford Professor Lera Boroditsky.

Could language affect my ability to be financially savvy?

Yes! Although it seems strange, your ability to save money can actually be influenced by the language you speak. If you speak a “futuredlanguage like English, i.e, one that distinguishes between past, present and future, your finances might be rather different than someone who speaks a “futureless” language, like Chinese, ie, one that uses the same phrasing regardless of whether you are discussing yesterday, today or tomorrow! Economist, Keith Chen, found that futureless language speakers are 30% more likely to have saved money over any given year than a speaker of a futured language. Chen put this down to the fact that futured languages speak about the future as distinct from the present, a separate entity, which makes it feel much more distant. As a result, we’re less motivated to save money now to benefit us years down the line.

What about my tendency to allocate blame?

Stanford Professor of Psychology, Lera Boroditsky, notes that in the English language the tendency is to allocate the blame to an individual for an incident. We’ll often say that someone broke a vase, even if it was an accident. On the contrary, Spanish and Japanese speakers tend to say that the vase broke itself. A study done by a student of Boroditsky, Caitlin Fausey, found that English speakers were much more likely to remember who accidentally broke eggs or spilt drinks in a video than Spanish or Japanese speakers. Furthermore, Boroditsky argues that there’s a correlation between a focus on blame in English and our criminal justice system bent towards punishing transgressors rather than restituting victims.

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