Learning the name of a color changes the part of the brain that handles color perception.
Infants perceive color in the right hemisphere of the brain, researchers report, while adults do the job in the brain's left hemisphere.
Testing toddlers showed that the change occurred when the youngsters learned the names to attach to particular colors, scientists report in Tuesday's edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"It appears, as far as we can tell, that somehow the brain, when it has categories such as color, it actually consults those categories," Paul Kay of the department of linguistics, University of California, Berkeley, said in a telephone interview.
He said the researchers did a similar experiment with silhouettes of dogs and cats with the same result — once a child learns the name for the animal, perception moves from the right to the left side of the brain.
"It's important to know this because it's part of a debate that's gone on as long as there has been philosophy or science, about how the language we speak affects how we look at the world," Kay said. Indeed, scholars continue to discuss the comparative importance of nature versus nurture.
The researchers studied the time it took toddlers to begin eye movement toward a colored target in either their left or right field of vision to determine which half of the brain was processing the information.
The research was funded by the National Science Foundation.