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Ask someone to describe a smell, and you will often receive an answer that is vague, confused, overly simplified, or uses other odors as a comparison. Studies aiming to determine how well people can identify smells around them have only seen success rates of 50%, even when using common scents such as coffee, bananas, or chocolate. These results have led researchers to the conclusion that smells “defy words” and that they do not connect well to the language centers of the brain, but new evidence shows this may not be the case.

A team consisting of a psychologist and a linguist from the Netherlands and Sweden, respectively, ran tests with speakers of Jehai, a tribal community in the Malaysian Peninsula. The Jehai language has a number of thinking about languageabstract words that describe smell qualities, much as English has abstract words to describe the qualities of tastes or colors. The tests compared reaction times, type of response, and speaker agreement between sets of English versus Jehai speakers.

It was discovered that both the English and the Jehai teams were able to quickly and concisely come to an agreement about how to name and describe colors. However, while the Jehai teams were able to do the same with smells– even unfamiliar odors– the English teams took up to five times longer to find responses that described the smell, and frequently were unable to properly identify the source at all.

These results suggest that our ability to describe smells is not impeded by a biological connection with the brain, but rather adequate words in our language that would enable us to recognize and delineate the characteristics of odors. The Jehai, having lexicalized these characteristics, have no problem describing smells.

This raises interesting questions about language use and perception. It’s commonly accepted that everyone sees the world through the lens of their own personal experiences, cultural background, and by the constraints of their language. How might individual languages impact the way people perceive their physical environment or more abstract concepts?

Did you grow up speaking two or more languages? We would love to read your thoughts on cultural and environmental perception through language!

5 thoughts on “How Language Affects Our Perception of the World

  1. From a very early age I realized that I acted, and maybe thought, slightly differently depending on the language I was speaking. :)

    Reply
    1. Hi Thais,
      I do believe that the languages we speak shape the way we think, live our lives and the way we see the world. When I first attended college, I noticed that when I wrote essays, the way I expressed ideas and even the terminologies I chose to convey my thoughts were different (in a good way). Someday we will certainly publish a white paper about whether learning new languages changes the way you think. One more thing added to our to do list :)

      Reply
  2. Hello Nisar and Thais,

    I do share both your ideas. I am a Cameroonian.My country has English and French as official languages. I am from a French speaking background but my parents decided to send all their children (5 of us) to one of the best English-speaking schools in the two English speaking regions of Cameroon. I spent seven years (secondary education) in one and three years (undergraduate) in the other. In all, i spent 10 years away from my own culture. Returning home was quite a challenge for me. First, i had to upgrade my understanding of the French language, writing as well as speaking. Secondly, i had to adapt to the mode of living which is way different from the one experienced in the English-speaking regions. I will admit that knowing my own culture and speaking my mothertongue (Bassa) helped me a lot in this transitional period (For those who do not know, Cameroon has more than 250 local languages) . Knowing where i come from helped me handle my cultural heritage. Today, i feel great expressing myself in all three languages. I have the impression everytime to be more and more closer to everyone in this world. It is my own form of globalisation. As long as i live, i intend to learn more languages.

    Reply
  3. Yes. The language we speak does not only shape the way we see the world, but, it also may – or rather does- limit what we view of the infinite world. How can you cater for the fact that some languages do not have words for concepts, which, in other languages are basic?

    Reply
  4. This makes me think of a friend of mine to whom I said one day that she acts in two different ways when she shifts from one language to another (she’s bilingual actually)

    Reply

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