The Language You Speak Influences Where Your Attention Goes

Psycholinguistics is a field at the intersection of psychology and linguistics, and one if its recent discoveries is that the languages we speak influence our eye movements. For example, English speakers who hear candle often look at a candy because the two words share their first syllable. Research with speakers of different languages revealed that bilingual speakers not only look at words that share sounds in one language but also at words that share sounds across their two languages. When Russian-English bilinguals hear the English word marker, they also look at a stamp, because the Russian word for stamp is marka.

Even more stunning, speakers of different languages differ in their patterns of eye movements when no language is used at all. In a simple visual search task in which people had to find a previously seen object among other objects, their eyes moved differently depending on what languages they knew. For example, when looking for a clock, English speakers also looked at a cloud. Spanish speakers, on the other hand, when looking for the same clock, looked at a present, because the Spanish names for clock and present—reloj and regalo—overlap at their onset.

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