Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology used twenty hues of blue to test for this perceptual quirk. They recruited fifty people, half native English speakers and half native Russian speakers, and had them try to match colored squares. They were shown a reference square of a particular shade of blue and asked which of two other squares, of slightly different shades, matched it. In one type of test the two squares were very similar, and in the other type of test they were more different.
The native English speakers did no better at distinguishing between the very different squares than they did with the very similar ones. The native Russian speakers were significantly faster at distinguishing between the notably darker and lighter squares than they were with the very similar ones. The difference is that Russian has different words altogether for dark blue and light blue, whereas English only modifies the word “blue” with “dark” and “light.” When the Russian speakers had to perform a difficult task that interfered with forming the words for the colors while they were taking the test, they did no better than the English speakers. That’s how language affects what we see.Language also affects what we can hear. Musicians who grew up speaking a “tonal” language such as Mandarin are much more likely to develop perfect pitch than are English speaking musicians. The Mandarin speakers often achieve perfect pitch, that is hitting the exact frequency of sound, even in ordinary speech. The test for perfect pitch, or absolute pitch, involves accurately identifying or producing a musical note in the absence of any reference notes.
Language can also affect what we can say, and not just by the limitations of whatever language we’re using. Researchers at the Harvard Medical School performed a trial that showed that people who were severely verbally abused as children had reduced language skills as adults. Compared to people who weren’t abused, they also had ten percent reductions in the size of brain regions responsible for understanding both the tone and the meaning of what they hear. On tests they showed language skills reduced by about ten percent compared to the control group. Remember, there was no physical abuse, only verbal abuse.
Language is powerful.