A new study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has revealed the materialization of specific words to distinguish specific colors in a small community, was consequential to learning a second language.
The research found that people of a remote Amazonian society who learned Spanish as a second language began to distinguish ‘blue’ from ‘green’ in a new way.
There is a wide variation in the number of basic color terms described by different languages across the globe. It has been proven that more isolated communities are likely to have fewer words to separate distinct colors and shades in the spectrum, and those they do have are either grouped in ‘warm’ or ‘cool’ colors.
According to MIT’s study, the process in which humans use language to determine color terms can be affected by contact with and adoption of other languages.
In the Amazonian Tsimane’ society—a population living in a remote part of the Bolivian Amazon rainforest, MIT researchers found that those who had acquired Spanish as a second language had started to classify colors into more words. These distinctions were observed as being uncommon within Tsimane’ who are monolingual (only speak one language).
In the researchers’ most notable finding, Tsimane’ who were bilingual, began using two different words to describe blue and green, which again was atypical for monolingual community members. Furthermore, instead of borrowing Spanish words for blue and green, they brought together several words from their own language to describe those colors.
The team also found that the bilingual Tsimane’ became more precise in describing colors such as yellow and red, and two specific words to describe shades of blue and green—”shandyes” and “yushñus.” Monolingual speakers in the community would more commonly use a select few words to encompass a much wider range of colors than what a Spanish or English speaker would include.
Edward Gibson, an MIT professor of brain and cognitive sciences and the senior author of the study, explained “Learning a second language enables you to understand these concepts that you didn’t have in your first language. What’s also interesting is they used their own Tsimane’ terms to start dividing up the color space more like Spanish does.”
The concept of language relating to thought, has been the subject of much scrutiny. Some linguists have argued that language can only limit the experience of color only to a certain degree, and that there is a baseline ‘orderly’ emergence of color terms in most global languages. Despite not having a word for a specific color or shade however does not mean a person can’t visually perceive its differences, compared to another.
During the study, researchers asked 30 bilingual Tsimane’ people, along with 71 monolingual Tsimane’ people to sort 84 chips of different colors and to comment on how they would label and name them. The bilingual participants were asked to repeat the same task in both Tsimane’ and Bolivian-Spanish.
As well as separating out the blue and green names, the participants who spoke two languages were more precise about naming colors in Tsimane’. The researchers noted that this finding demonstrated how languages can have an impact on each other, and how concepts like color theory can be remodeled based on language.
“The bilingual speakers learn a different way to divide up the color space, which is pretty useful if you’re dealing with the industrialized world, “expresses Gibson. “It’s useful to be able to label colors that way, and somehow they import some of that into the Tsimane’ meaning space.”
The MIT researchers have hypothesized that bilinguals in the community may begin to influence the monolinguals when it comes to language vs. perception. In addition, it is thought that more monolinguals will start to learn Bolivian-Spanish.
The latter prediction comes with the Tsimane’ people’s movements in interacting more with the outside world and a developing economy. The team have expressed interest in testing their theory and findings in other isolated communities.
Saima Malik-Moraleda, a graduate student specializing in bilingual brains at at Harvard University, says, “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.”