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Learning a New Language Changes Color Perception

People who learned second language differentiate colors more precisely. This suggests that language acquisition reshapes the world around us.

A study published in Psychological Science investigated the link between language learning and color perception in the Tsimane people of the Bolivian Amazon. This indigenous community, known for its traditional way of life, served as a unique case study due to their limited exposure to languages beyond their own.

The research team observed that bilingual Tsimane individuals who learned Spanish began differentiating colors more precisely. These speakers adopted distinct terms for colors like blue and green, which were previously categorized under one word in their native language. This suggests that language acquisition can reshape our understanding of the world around us, including how we perceive and classify colors.

The Tsimane people’s traditional lifestyle, characterized by small, isolated villages along the Maniqui River, has fostered a strong connection to their natural environment. This isolation also contributed to the preservation of their unique language and cultural identity.

However, with increasing interaction with Spanish speakers, the Tsimane way of life is gradually changing. This includes changes in language use, as evidenced by the adoption of additional color terms from Spanish. This ongoing shift highlights the dynamic relationship between language and our perception of the world.

The study’s focus on bilingualism aligns with the growing recognition that a significant portion of the world’s population speaks multiple languages. Traditionally, research has primarily focused on monolingual speakers, leaving a gap in understanding the potential benefits of multilingualism.

“We were particularly interested in how languages from very distinct cultures might influence each other. These languages essentially ‘carve up’ the world in different ways, leading to fascinating insights when speakers from such cultures come into contact.”

The Tsimane people’s limited use of color words presented a unique opportunity for the study. Previous research indicated a general lack of emphasis on color in their language. This naturally led researchers to investigate how Tsimane individuals who learned Spanish might (or might not) experience changes in their way of talking about colors.

The Study

Three distinct groups, totaling 152 individuals, participated in the study. A group of 71 Tsimane monolinguals spoke only their native language. Another group of 30 consisted of Spanish monolinguals. The most crucial group, for the purposes of understanding the impact of bilingualism on color perception, comprised 30 individuals fluent in both Tsimane and Spanish. Their experiences provided insights into how acquiring a second language might alter how individuals perceive and categorize colors based on their initial language.

The research employed a two-part methodology focused on color perception and naming. The first task presented participants with 84 color chips, specifically chosen from the standardized Munsell array. These chips encompassed a broad spectrum of colors and were displayed one at a time. Participants were asked to name each chip in their native language, and bilingual participants were instructed to name them in both Tsimane and Spanish.

The second task assessed color grouping. Here, participants viewed the complete set of 84 Munsell color chips simultaneously. They were then instructed to group the chips based on the color terms used in their native language. This task aimed to unlock how participants categorized colors into broader groups based on their linguistic and cultural background.

For bilingual participants, both tasks were completed twice – once in each language they spoke. This dual approach was essential to determine whether and how their color naming and categorization differed between their first and second languages. This allowed researchers to isolate the influence of the newly acquired language (Spanish) on the established system of color perception and categorization present in their native Tsimane language.

The Results

The study revealed a fascinating link between bilingualism and sharpened cognitive function, particularly in the area of color perception. Bilingual Tsimane speakers demonstrated greater precision in naming colors within their native language. This was evident in their use of distinct terms for colors like yellow and red, which monolingual speakers categorized with a single term encompassing a broader range of shades.

For example, a monolingual Tsimane speaker might use one word to describe all variations of red, whereas a bilingual speaker, influenced by Spanish, would utilize separate terms to categorize these shades more precisely, aligning with the finer color distinctions found in Spanish.

One of the most intriguing findings centered on how bilingual Tsimane-Spanish speakers began differentiating colors previously lacking distinct terms in their native language. This highlights the potential for bilingualism to enhance mental agility.

“Learning a second language allows you to grasp concepts not present in your first language. Another fascinating aspect is that they began using existing Tsimane terms to categorize colors in a way that mirrors Spanish.”

Edward Gibson, – MIT professor of brain and cognitive sciences

The research specifically found that bilingual individuals adopted separate Tsimane words for blue and green, whereas monolingual Tsimane speakers used interchangeable terms for these colors (“shandyes” and “yushñus”). After learning Spanish, bilingual speakers used “yushñus” exclusively for blue and “shandyes” for green, demonstrating a clear distinction between the two colors absent in the monolingual Tsimane vocabulary.

These findings suggest that acquiring a new language can influence how we perceive and categorize the world around us, even within the framework of our native language. This can potentially lead to sharper cognitive abilities and a more nuanced understanding of the environment.

The Conclusion

The study shines a light on the remarkable adaptability and interconnectedness of the human brain when it comes to language. Bilingual Tsimane speakers didn’t simply adopt Spanish color terms. Instead, they cleverly repurposed and refined their existing Tsimane vocabulary based on their exposure to Spanish color categories. This demonstrates a two-way influence between languages. Acquiring a new language doesn’t just expand vocabulary; it can reshape the underlying conceptual framework of your native language.

“This effect held true for all tested colors, not just blue and green. Bilingual Tsimane speakers displayed a greater consistency in color term usage across the board. The fact that their native Tsimane language itself shifted how they discussed colors was quite surprising.”

Malik-Moraleda researcher

While the findings are compelling, the study acknowledges limitations. The Tsimane people’s unique social and cultural context, with limited exposure to the vast color range found in industrialized societies, might influence their color perception and categorization. Additionally, the study focused primarily on color, leaving unanswered the question of whether similar bilingual effects extend to other cognitive areas.

Future research plans include investigating if the observed effects in the Tsimane community can be replicated in other remote populations with distinct linguistic and cultural backgrounds. The Gujjar community in the Himalayas is one such group under consideration. The research team is also interested in exploring whether other cognitive domains, like time perception, are similarly influenced by bilingualism.

“It’s important to remember, that this study only addressed how learning a new language can change how you talk about certain concepts in your native language, not necessarily how you perceive the world itself. While there’s a popular belief that language shapes perception, we haven’t directly tested that here.”



Words and the concepts they represent vary across languages. Here we ask if mother-tongue concepts are altered by learning a second language. What happens when speakers of Tsimane’, a language with few consensus color terms, learn Bolivian Spanish, a language with more terms? Three possibilities arise: Concepts in Tsimane’ may remain unaffected, or they may be remapped, either by Tsimane’ terms taking on new meanings or by borrowing Bolivian-Spanish terms. We found that adult bilingual speakers (n = 30) remapped Tsimane’ concepts without importing Bolivian-Spanish terms into Tsimane’. All Tsimane’ terms become more precise; for example, concepts of monolingual shandyes and yụshñus (~green or blue, used synonymously by Tsimane’ monolinguals; n = 71) come to reflect the Bolivian-Spanish distinction of verde (~green) and azul (~blue). These results show that learning a second language can change the concepts in the first language.

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