In the 2016 blockbuster Arrival, a linguist tasked with helping the government communicate with recently-landed extra-terrestrials finds herself, after months of immersion in their world, dreaming in the aliens’ language. Eventually, her very perception of reality is altered by their strange, complex method of communication.
This is far from just a convenient sci-fi plot point, and Arrival (by Quebecois director Denis Villeneuve) is far from a typical sci-fi action film. The film is about language and its ability to change how we see the world—a concept based very much in reality.
The belief that the languages we speak change our perception of the world was first suggested hundreds of years ago, and was further developed into the theory we know today (as linguistic relativity, or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) in the 1920s. Proponents of linguistic relativity argue that language forms our world view, and therefore, people who speak different languages (with different vocabulary, grammar and sentence structures) will have different world views.
A popular example in support of this claim is the name (or rather, names) for the colour blue in Russian. Unlike in most other languages, there is no all-encompassing name for the colour most of us know of as ‘blue’. Russian has two words—goluboj, or light blue, and siniy, dark blue—and this linguistic difference means the two shades are treated as entirely separate colours.
So what does this mean for perception? Well, in studies of English and Russian speakers, the Russians were shown to be faster at matching shades of blue in a colour discrimination study.
If this isn’t significant enough evidence for you, look to the Guugu Yimithirr language of Australia, which utilizes words related to cardinal points (in English: north, east, south and west) to talk about direction rather than position related to oneself (like left, right, in front of, beside, etc.). Because of this feature, speakers must therefore be constantly directionally-aware, whether they’re inside or out, in a familiar place or a new one—an ability that few speakers of languages without this attribute can claim to have.
As a still-developing hypothesis, linguistic relativity has its detractors, of course, but however much (or little) language does influence our perceptions, there’s no question that acquiring a new language means acquiring a new perspective, even if just for the simple fact that it enables you to access a whole new range of opinions, media and artworks.
Picking up a new language may not completely alter your perception of time and reality like it did for the linguist in Arrival, but we can guarantee it will change how you look at things at least a little bit—just ask the many multilingual language school students and staff members at E-QIP Montreal, who will tell you with absolute certainty how their thoughts, and even their personalities, change when the language coming out of their mouths does. It’s not sci-fi, but we think it’s pretty magical just the same.