I Spy a Whole New World

Globe, magnifying glassMost of us have played “I Spy,” a classic game that helps while away the minutes—or sometimes hours—when there’s nothing better to do. It conjures up memories of long road trips or rainy days spent inside. But for leading cognitive scientists at Indiana University, it’s about much more.

The “I Spy” Study
To study attention and memory, researchers had children play “I Spy” games in two different ways: by giving the target image only, and by giving the target image while saying its name. Children’s focus and speed improved dramatically when language was used. In the words of one researcher, “words put ideas in working memory faster than images.” Language’s influence on attention, which affects, “how children learn, how much they learn, and how well they learn,” has important implications for people with developmental disabilities such as ADHD. But the stakes are high for us all.

What “I Spy” Means for Foreign-Language Learners
As one cognitive scientist points out, the “I Spy” study proves that “the use of language can change how people inspect the world around them.” Think about it; language can literally change what you see and how you see it. This study shows cultural competency is about more than knowledge of a culture. Learning and using the language itself actually changes the way you experience your environment, giving you invaluable insight. No wonder foreign-language competency is a necessity for today’s graduates. By using someone else’s language, you are seeing things from their perspective—literally.

Opening Up New Worlds
Language use literally changes what we see. And as researchers revealed in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, “there are vanishingly few universals of language . . . diversity can be found at almost every level of linguistic organization.” Imagine what this means for the diversity of perceptions of the world.

There is no question that languages are key for students to build successful relationships, whether professional or personal, in this globally connected and vibrantly diverse world. Anyone up for a game of “I Spy”?

Have you noticed that you see things differently when using different languages? Tell us about your experiences, and pass this article along to peers interested in the relationship between experience and language!

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