Language Can Affect How We Think About Others

Could the language that bilingual people use influence how they see other people? A team of researchers decided to test this idea by studying a group of Israeli Arabs who speak both Arabic and Hebrew fluently. They asked the volunteers to take a psychology test that would show how they responded to different words, designed to get at their attitudes and beliefs about Arabs and Israelis.
Specifically, they wanted to see whether the volunteers would find it easier to link Arab names or Jewish names with positive or negative traits—and whether the results depended on which language they were tested in. In one case, for example, the volunteers were asked to press one key on the keyboard whenever they saw a positive word or an Arab name and another key when they saw a negative word or a Jewish name. If the volunteers generally associated “good” with Arabs and “bad” with Jews, they would hit the keys faster than those who didn’t have these “implicit associations.”
So did it matter which language the volunteers were tested in? Turns out it did. Overall, the Arab Israelis showed more negative bias toward Jewish names than Arabic names—they were quicker to associate Jewish names with negative words and Arab names with positive words than they were at making the reverse associations—and this effect was much stronger when the words were presented in Arabic.
Shai Danziger, who worked on the study, isn’t surprised:

I am a bilingual and I believe that I actually respond differently in Hebrew than I do in English. 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.

Category: Findings


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