People, Places, and Things

The psychology of design: How to create an environment in which you will thrive

Language and Experience

Language influences experience of the world.

The language you speak influences how you experience the world that surrounds you. Guy Deutscher's book (Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2010), which lays out how, should be required reading as cultures intertwine in new combinations and people with different first languages learn to live with each other.

Deutscher's basic point is effectively and succinctly presented on the dust jacket of his book: "Can different languages lead their speakers to different ideas? Is our native language a lens through which we perceive the world? Could our experience of a Chagall painting depend on whether the language we speak has a word for ‘blue'? . . . the answers to all these questions is - yes."

Our languages make us more likely to conceptualize and interact with what's around us in particular ways. For example, in a discussion of languages with and without gender systems (more on this later) Deutscher states that "the relevant difference between languages with and without a gender system is not in what they allow their speakers to convey but in what they habitually force their speakers to say."

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How does all of this influence design? Examples abound in the text. Deutscher points out that "go" traffic lights in Japan have a bluish cast. This is because historically the Japanese used the same word to connote both blue and green. As the verbal distinction between the two colors in Japanese speech become sharper, the Japanese government changed the color of the "go" lights to turquoise because the word that had named blue and green (used to label that light color) came to be more closely linked with blue than green: "The turquoising of the traffic light in Japan is a rather out-of-the way example of how the quirks of a language can change reality and thus affect what people get to see in the world."

Experiments are reported to build the case that language influences how we perceive colors. Researchers have carefully investigated how different languages choose to categorize colors and group some together under common names. Many languages refer to blue and green with a single word, for example, and in different parts of the world other colors that we distinguish with separate names share the same label. Rigorous studies have shown that "When the brain has to decide whether two colors look the same or not, the circuits responsible for visual perception ask the language circuits for help in making the decision, even if no speaking is involved." Language clearly influences how colors are perceived: "The vocabulary of color in different languages can be the cause of differences in the perception of color."

Assigning gender to inanimate objects (as is done in French, German, and other European languages) also influences human experience. "Bridge" is a feminine word in German but a masculine word in Spanish "and the same goes for clocks, apartments, forks . . ." but the situation is reversed for other words, such as table, keys, and garbage. Researchers found that "On average, the nouns that are masculine in German but feminine is Spanish (chairs and keys, for example) got higher marks for strength from the Germans, whereas bridges and clocks, which are masculine in Spanish but feminine in German, were judged stronger on average by Spanish speakers." Even when communicating in English in another experiment "German speakers tended to describe bridges as beautiful, elegant, fragile, peaceful, pretty, and slender; Spanish speakers as big, dangerous, long, strong, sturdy, towering." It is logical to conclude that these differences in descriptors for bridges, for example, influence accepted and customary forms for them.

Deutscher convincingly presents evidence indicating that language influences our emotional response to the world in which we find ourselves. Language has important effects on how we perceive our environment as well as how we conceptualize its form. Clearly "un bureau" in Bordeaux is very different from "una oficina" in Oviedo and an office in Omaha.

Sally Augustin, Ph.D., is a practicing environmental psychologist who studies person-centered design and sensory science.

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