A new study from MIT has found that learning a second language can influence how people perceive and describe colors. The researchers studied the Tsimane’ society, who live in the Bolivian Amazon rainforest, and found that those who had learned Spanish as a second language began to make color distinctions that were not commonly used by monolingual Tsimane’. For example, bilingual Tsimane’ speakers started using separate words to describe blue and green, and instead of borrowing Spanish words, they repurposed words from their own language. The study also found that bilingual Tsimane’ speakers became more precise in describing colors such as yellow and red. This research suggests that contact between languages can influence how people think about concepts like color. The researchers hope to study whether other concepts, such as frames of reference for time, may also spread from Spanish to Tsimane’ speakers who become bilingual. The study was funded by various sources including the National Science Foundation CompCog Program.

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