A long-standing debate in the cognitive sciences concerns whether linguistic structure shapes cognitive processing, such that speakers of different languages categorize events and objects in different ways. An international research team headed by Emanuel Bylund (Centre for Research on Bilingualism, Stockholm University) and Panos Athanasopoulos (Lancaster University, UK) recently published a study on this topic in the journal Psychological Science, focusing particularly on multilingual speakers.

The study examined English and German, which differ in how they express events: English has a progressive tense to zoom in on the unfolding of an event, whereas German does not have this option grammatically. When asked to match videoclips depicting everyday motion events, German speakers attached more importance to whether there was a visible goal of the motion, whereas English speakers were more focused on the action itself, paying less attention to the endpoints. German-English bilinguals, in contrast, matched events on the basis of either action or goal, depending on the language in which they received the instructions.

Moreover, when one of the languages of the bilinguals was kept busy through the repetition of number strings, the other language came to the fore, such that when they repeated numbers in German, the matching preferences were English-like, and vice-versa. Crucially, this behaviour was attested within one and the same participant, as the language of number repetition was switched half-way through the experiment.

These findings show that the effects of language on thought are not static, but shift depending on external factors. The findings also show that the cognitive behaviour of bilinguals is remarkably flexible. Bilinguals do not think differently from monolinguals, they think differently depending on the linguistic environment in which they act.