You Think What You Talk
August 3, 2008
IF YOU speak two or more languages fluently, you may be familiar with the feeling that you act differently in them. I tend to be more excitable in Spanish and ruder in Hebrew, for instance, than I am in English. Now a study by Shai Danziger of Ben-Gurion University and Robert Ward of Bangor University, published in Psychological Science, has confirmed that the language you’re speaking can affect the way you think.
The subjects of the study were Arab-Israelis who were bilingual in Arabic and Hebrew. They sat before a computer screen that showed them either an Arab or a Jewish name together with a word describing either a negative or a positive trait. They had to press a certain key depending on what sort of pairing they saw, and the researchers timed how long it took them to press the key, as a measure of how automatic their association between the two words was.
Not surprisingly, given the tension between Jews and Arabs in Israel,
[the] volunteers found it easier to associate Arab names with “good” trait words and Jewish names with “bad” trait words than Arab names with “bad” trait words and Jewish names with “good” trait words.
However, the researchers did the same experiment twice—once in Arabic and once in Hebrew. And what they found was,
…this effect was much stronger when the test was given in Arabic; in the Hebrew session, they showed less of a positive bias toward Arab names over Jewish names.
So that’s the solution to the Middle East conflict: just force all the Jews to speak Arabic and all the Arabs to speak Hebrew.
Mr Danziger, who like me is bilingual in English and Hebrew, said:
“I think in English I’m more polite than I am in Hebrew… People can exhibit different types of selves in different environments. This suggests that language can serve as a cue to bring forward different selves.”
About Johnson: In this blog, named for the dictionary-maker Samuel Johnson, correspondents write about the effects that the use (and sometimes abuse) of language have on politics, society and culture around the world.