The Language You Speak Influences What You Look at, According to Study.

If you think that language is just a means of communication, then you are massively underestimating the role that language plays in our lives. We are somehow at the mercy of the languages we speak. They shape and influence our behavior through and through. 

In a recent study, it has been shown that the languages we speak influence our attention and direct our eye movements. For example, English speakers who hear the word candle often look at candy because the words share the same syllable onset. In the same vein, research has revealed that bilinguals look not only at words that share the same sounds in one language, but also at words that share sounds across the different languages they speak. For example, Russian-English bilinguals, when they come across the word marker, they tend to direct their eyes to a stamp, because the Rusian word for stamp is the similar-sounding word “marka.” 

What is even more fascinating is that people who speak different languages differ in the pattern of their eye movements even when no language is being used at all. In a simple visual search task in which people were asked to locate a previously seen object among other objects, their eyes moved differently depending on what languages they knew. For example, when English speakers were asked to look for a clock, they also directed their eyes and looked at a cloud; two words sharing the same syllable onset. The same thing was documented with Spanish speakers. When looking for the same clock, Spanish speakers also looked at a present because both words for clock and present share the same onset in Spanish; reloj and regalo, respectively. 

We’re not done yet. The words we hear not only activate other similar-sounding words, and not only do we look at things whose names share a sound or two even when no language is spoken, but something else gets activated. You guessed right: the translations of those nouns in other languages get activated as well. For example, Spanish-English bilinguals, when they hear the word duck in English, look at a shovel. That’s because the Spanish translations of duck and shovel overlap in the way they sound-pato and pala, respectively.

This phenomenon is not limited to spoken language only. Studies show that bilinguals of spoken and sign languages show co-activation as well. English Native Speakers who know American Sign Language were shown to look at cheese when they encounter the English word paper. That’s because paper and cheese share three out of four sign components in American Sign Language. (hand shape, location, and orientation but not motion).

Question: why are these findings both fascinating and important? For one thing, they suggest that language is a system that is thoroughly interactive with other domains of cognition and impacts our processing in such things as vision, attention, and cognitive control. It directs how our eyes move, what we look at, and what we pay attention to. As we go about our daily lives, everything is directed and influenced by the languages we speak. 

These findings have far-reaching implications that range from consumer behavior (what we look at in a store) to the military (visual search in complex scenes) and art (what our eyes are drawn to). 

In other words, it is safe to say that the language you speak influences how you see the world not only figuratively but also quite literally, down to the mechanics of your eye movements.

_Viorica Marian


[1] Tanenhaus, M., Spivey-Knowlton, M., Eberhard, K., & Sedivy, J. (1995). Integration of visual and linguistic information during spoken language comprehension. Science, 268, 1632–1634.

[2] Marian, V., & Spivey, M. (2003). Competing activation in bilingual language processing: Within- and between-language competition. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 6 (2), 97-115. [pdf]

[3] Chabal, S., & Marian, V. (2015). Speakers of different languages process the visual world differently. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 144(3), 539-550. [pdf]

[4] Shook, A., & Marian, V. (2018). Covert co-activation of bilinguals’ non-target language: Phonological competition from translations. Linguistic Approaches to Bilingualism. [pdf]

[5] Shook, A., & Marian, V. (2012). Bimodal bilinguals coactivate both languages during spoken comprehension. Cognition, 124, 314-324. [pdf]

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