Spanish monolinguals identified the ball using the internal reference frame 78% of the time and English monolinguals 52% of the time. English speakers would only select the internal frame if the possessive sentence, “the ball is to the dog’s left,” is used. The phrase doesn’t matter to Spanish speakers. They preferred only internal frames, unless the object was inanimate—it was a vase or a car rather than a dog, statue, or human.
In a follow-up study, Tenbrink showed that bilingual Spanish and English speakers were somewhere in the middle between monolingual Spanish and English speakers and were more influenced by the frame of reference commonly used in the country in which they lived. “Spanish and English speakers interpret spatial relationships a little differently,” says Tenbrink “And once a speaker speaks both languages, their preferences change in different ways. I thought that was quite interesting because people don’t usually realize that their preferences change because they’ve learned a second language.”
Either way, it’s something to keep in mind if you’re choosing a meeting place with someone who speaks another language to you.
Speakers of some languages also focus more on the action than on the larger context. When watching videos involving motion, English, Spanish, Arabic, and Russian speakers tended to describe what happened in terms of action, such as “a man walking.” German, Afrikaans and Swedish speakers, on the other hand, focus on the overall image with the end point, describing it as “a man walking towards a car”.
Athanasopoulos recalls an incident that illustrates how navigation can be interfered with. While working on a linguistic project, he goes on a trip with a group of international researchers to the English countryside. In order to get from a town to a small village, they had to walk across a field and pass through a private estate, as indicated by a sign with the message: “Walk diagonally across the field.” To English and Spanish speakers, this was intuitive. But one German speaker was a bit hesitant. While leading the way across the field, which had a church at the end, he finally concluded: “Ah, so you mean we should walk to the church?” The sign needed a start and end point to depict the diagonal it was referring to.
As this body of research grows, it is becoming increasingly clear that language is influencing how we think about the world around us and our passage through it. Which is not to say that any one language is “better” than the other. As Tenbrink argues, “a language will develop what its users need”.
But being aware of how languages differ can help you think, navigate, and communicate better And being multilingual doesn’t necessarily make you a genius, we can all gain a new perspective and a more flexible understanding of the world by learning a new language.
* Miriam Frankel and Matt Warren are science journalists and authors of Are You Thinking Clearly?
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