It started with English scholars and linguists when they noticed none of the ancient texts spent much time describing the gorgeous blues of the Greek Isles or the rich greens of the Italian countryside.

It moved into anthropology as scientists encountered tribes that had many names for various shades of green in the forest they lived in, but could not accurately identify the one blue dot in a mostly green color wheel. They simply could not recognize that the color even existed.

Now, it’s widely accepted among scientists that the language we use, and how we use it, has a profound effect on how we understand the world around us. People living in the United States, for example, could never imagine living in a world without the blue of the ocean, the sky, the American flag.

Of course, the fact that the tribespeople, and apparently our ancient ancestors, didn’t recognize the color blue doesn’t mean that the color doesn’t exist in their world. The same sky spread over them that spreads over us. The blue waters we admire from the Greek Isles are not simply photoshopped into place.

These studies bring forward deep philosophical ramifications regarding our blind spots as adults, but recently, scientists have turned their attention to just how early these cultural conceptions are formed.

In a study from Northwestern University, children as young as nine months were able to demonstrate emerging categorical understandings such as differences in color shades and identification standards. Although they don’t yet have the ability to speak, they watch and learn, accurately identifying which elements belong in which category if and when they are given consistent unique names for those categories. If the same name is used for everything, the infants were unable to determine a difference existed at all.

So, if you were ever curious whether exposing children to a variety of experiences and providing them with the language needed to make distinctions is simply a waste of time, worry no longer. You can help your child see more of the world simply by giving them the language by which to identify it.

Is it blue, green or black? How language shapes our world
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