Words and meaning can create different contexts based on cultural usage alone. While English speakers prefer to assign blame — “She broke the bowl!” — Spanish and Japanese cultures focus more on the event — “The bowl broke itself.” That sort of action shifting can make a mess when it comes to universal human understanding and, yet, we wouldn’t want it any other way.
Language even shapes what we see. People have a better memory for colors if different shades have distinct names–not English’s light blue and dark blue, for instance, but Russian’s goluboy and sinly. Skeptics of the language-shapes-thought claim have argued that that’s a trivial finding, showing only that people remember what they saw in both a visual form and a verbal one, but not proving that they actually see the hues differently.
In an ingenious experiment, however, Boroditsky and colleagues showed volunteers three color swatches and asked them which of the bottom two was the same as the top one. Native Russian speakers were faster than English speakers when the colors had distinct names, suggesting that having a name for something allows you to perceive it more sharply.
Similarly, Korean uses one word for “in” when one object is in another snugly (a letter in an envelope), and a different one when an object is in something loosely (an apple in a bowl). Sure enough, Korean adults are better than English speakers at distinguishing tight fit from loose fit.
Learning a new language is always challenging — gender verbs, spatial assignments, the clash between the witnessed verbal and the silent written — can all lead us into mayhem… or along a path to greater respect for how each culture views, and interacts with, the world around us.
Perhaps having a universal, common, language would do us more harm than good when it comes to asking the right questions and divining a multiplicity of answers and insights.