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Knowledge Centre on Interpretation

Color Concepts: How Bilingualism Influences Color Perception

Researchers discovered that the way we perceive and describe colors is influenced by the languages we speak -

woman eyes brown colours

Summary: Researchers discovered that the way we perceive and describe colors is influenced by the languages we speak.

In a study with the Tsimane’ society from the Bolivian Amazon, bilingual individuals who learned Spanish as a second language began distinguishing colors differently than monolingual Tsimane’ speakers.

Notably, bilingual Tsimane’ individuals started using separate words for blue and green, demonstrating the impact of language on our perception of the world. This linguistic evolution hints at the broader cognitive benefits of bilingualism.

Key Facts:

The Tsimane’ society in the Bolivian Amazon traditionally does not differentiate between blue and green.

Bilingual Tsimane’ individuals, after exposure to Spanish, began using separate terms for blue and green without borrowing Spanish words.

This study illustrates how learning a second language can reshape how one perceives and classifies the world, using color as a primary example.

Source: MIT

The human eye can perceive about 1 million colors, but languages have far fewer words to describe those colors. So-called basic color terms, single color words used frequently by speakers of a given language, are often employed to gauge how languages differ in their handling of color.

Languages spoken in industrialized nations such as the United States, for example, tend to have about a dozen basic color terms, while languages spoken by more isolated populations often have fewer.

However, the way that a language divides up color space can be influenced by contact with other languages, according to a new study from MIT.

Among members of the Tsimane’ society, who live in a remote part of the Bolivian Amazon rainforest, the researchers found that those who had learned Spanish as a second language began to classify colors into more words, making color distinctions that are not commonly used by Tsimane’ who are monolingual.

In the most striking finding, Tsimane’ who were bilingual began using two different words to describe blue and green, which monolingual Tsimane’ speakers do not typically do. And, instead of borrowing Spanish words for blue and green, they repurposed words from their own language to describe those colors.

“Learning a second language enables you to understand these concepts that you didn’t have in your first language,” says Edward Gibson, an MIT professor of brain and cognitive sciences and the senior author of the study.

“What’s also interesting is they used their own Tsimane’ terms to start dividing up the color space more like Spanish does.”

The researchers also found that the bilingual Tsimane’ became more precise in describing colors such as yellow and red, which monolingual speakers tend to use to encompass many shades beyond what a Spanish or English speaker would include.

“It’s a great example of one of the main benefits of learning a second language, which is that you open a different worldview and different concepts that then you can import to your native language,” says Saima Malik-Moraleda, a graduate student in the Speech and Hearing Bioscience and Technology Program at Harvard University and the lead author of the study

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