Language offers a convenient medium of interactions but it can also sets the limits to our thinking and behaviors.
Recall a time when you travelled – perhaps as a tourist - to a new country with a different language and found yourself struggling to communicate with the locals. Humans are probably the only species that have such sophisticated and complex articulation through speech. Beyond symbols and gestures, we are able to narrate our feelings and thoughts using diverse elaborate strings of words. It is clear that our attitudes, feelings, and emotions influence the words we use. A related question then is - does the language in turn used influence our attitudes and behaviors?
For those of us who know several languages, there is an innate preference towards our native (first) language when it comes to expressing intense emotions. For example, while cursing or in moments that involve shock or joy. Why so? Consider an Indian professional who, in school, studied in Hindi as the medium of instruction. Through years of higher education and work, she switched to English. And currently, she works and lives in France where French is typically used in everyday life. Even though she is getting fluent in French, she still thinks in either Hindi or English. Her vocabulary for nuanced words in French is limited with little knowledge of phrases, proverbs, and idioms. She understand the gist of the conversations – not the emotions involved or their intensity.
Scholars of linguistics have found that such use of another non-native (let’s call it ‘foreign’) language is cognitively demanding, psychologically more distant, and involves reduced emotional response. One natural outcome of this is that we tend to get more rational and utilitarian while using foreign language. Let’s take the example from a recent research on moral dilemmas. People were given the well-known footbridge scenario where they need to decide whether to sacrifice one person to save five. They are asked to imagine standing on a bridge that overlooks a train track. Below the bridge, they can see a train approaching and also that five people are stuck ahead on that track. In order to save these five people, the one thing that they could do is to throw another man - who happens to be standing next to them - off the bridge. This would stop the train saving the five people on track but kill this one person.
One could approach such a dilemma from at least two perspectives. One is the absolute wrongness involved in killing someone and the right to life for each person. The other is a utilitarian perspective whereby the judgments for the greater good are of utmost importance ignoring an individual’s right and, in the footbridge scenario, this would justify killing one person to save five. Our judgments are typically a combination of thinking from the heart (‘hot’ emotional responses) and from the head (‘cold’ rational process). Here, an individual’s decision depends on whether more attention is paid to the emotionally-charged morally-repulsive idea of deliberately killing someone or to the ultimate desire to save as many people as possible. Most people decide not to throw the other man off the bridge.
What is further interesting is that researchers have found that people’s answers change when the scenario is described in a foreign language: People become more willing to save five by pushing this one man off. Albert Costa and his colleagues, in their research, argued that use of foreign language elicited less intense emotional responses and also found that the percentage of people agreeing to throw the man off the bridge jumped from 20% to 33%.
If use of different languages can have such subtle influences on our decisions, then this can also be put to advantageous use in issues of public policy and to nudge public opinion. In a recent study, Janet Geipel from the VU University in Amsterdam along with her colleagues studied people’s willingness to consume recycled water. Though this recycled water comes from human waste, it is extremely safe, and offers an innovative solution to water-shortage problems. However, the idea of it coming from human waste triggers disgust. Interestingly, when the description of this recycled water was provided in a foreign language, more people were willing to try it.
The decreased levels of emotional involvement while using a foreign language can be used in legal decisions, negotiations, and public policy contexts. Emotional backlash, fears, and anxiety about difficult but beneficial public programs (for example, vaccination drives, water recycling, and waste management) can be reduced. Language offers a convenient medium of social interactions and entertainment. At the same time, it also puts a boundary to our thoughts and behaviors and, as the enthusiasts of linguistic relativity suggest, different languages represent the different lens of conceptualizing the world around us. Learning several languages can then help by providing new lenses and make us appreciative of others’ viewpoints. Though strong subconscious influences of our mother tongue will remain.