11886189-597F-44FC-85CE-22EABE21F267 Created with sketchtool. Dialects and Decisions – You Can’t Have One Without the Other

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  Last updated November 2, 2017 at 8:28 am

The language you use has more impact than the words you say – it can influence how you think and the decisions you make.

Australia is home to a huge melting pot of cultures. One of the significant ways in which this manifests is the great diversity of languages used throughout the country. Many Australasian countries have populations that speak native languages or dialects as mother tongues in addition to the official national language. For example, Mandarin Chinese is used as the lingua franca in China, however according to Ethnologue, there are 297 other languages that are natively spoken within the country. In Indonesia, the number is even more staggering with 706 languages currently in use.

Unsurprisingly, Australia too has an impressive range of languages. The current number as of 2017 lists 401 individual languages for Australia, of which 215 are ‘living’ languages or languages that are still spoken. Having such a dizzying array of languages at our doorstep can be very beneficial, as knowing more than one language is a great asset in life. Not only does it enhance job prospects, the mental gymnastics it takes to switch from one language to another improves mental flexibility and is said to protect against dementia for up to five years in bilinguals. However, a set of studies shows us that knowing and using different languages may also influence the way you think and the decisions you make.

Speak a different language and think a different way

A recent study led by Professor Panos Athanasopoulos from the University of Lancaster, reported that bilinguals that are equally skilled in German and English were influenced to think differently depending on the language that was accessible to them. According to the study published in the journal, Psychological Science, German speakers are prone to describing a motion-related event in a way that includes an action and a presumed goal. Monolingual German speakers, and bilingual German-English speakers tested using the German language, were more likely to associate an ambiguous goal (a person walking towards a car, but not arriving at it) with a specific goal (a person walking into a building), instead of a possible goal (a person walking, and a building in the distance). In contrast, monolingual English and bilingual German-English speakers tested in English, were less prone to associating an ambiguous scene with one with a specific goal.

This difference is attributed to the grammatical tools available in German and English, which affect how the respective languages are used. English speakers are able to describe verbs in terms of the timing of the action (‘-ing’), and therefore are prone to focus more on the action, rather than on the goal. Thus, an English speaker is more likely to say, ‘a person is walking’, while a German speaker who does not have such grammatical tools, would tend to include a possible goal and say, ‘a person walks towards a car’.

Mental manipulation via language

Fascinatingly, the researchers found that when thinking in one language was ‘interfered’ with, bilinguals equally skilled in both German and English became influenced to think according to the other language. When German-English bilinguals were asked to repeat a set of numbers in English (interference with the English language) while watching the same videos as before, they were more likely to think like Germans, and described ambiguous scenes as associated with specific-goal oriented scenes. The reverse occurred for bilinguals with German language interference, who thought more like the English when reciting numbers in German. Furthermore, when the bilinguals were surprised by researchers switching the interference language halfway through the test session, their tendency to think using a particular language was switched accordingly as well!

The common good in a foreign tongue

While using a different language may change the way one analyses a situation, does it actually translate to making a different decision? In another study, according to Professor Boaz Keysar and his team from the University of Chicago, thinking in a native versus a foreign language does indeed influence decision-making. The researchers presented participants from the United States, Spain, Korea, France and Israel, with a common scenario in either their native language, or in a language foreign to them, in which they possessed adequate but not native proficiency. They were told to imagine standing on a footbridge overlooking a train track where an oncoming train was about to kill five people. The only way to save these people was to push a heavy man off the footbridge to allow them to escape. In other words, sacrifice one person to save five. When participants were questioned in a foreign language they were twice as likely to choose to push the heavy man off, than if they were question in their native language. Interestingly, none of the Koreans questioned in their native language chose to sacrifice the man, possibly reflecting East Asian cultural values—similar findings are also seen in other studies. However, in a foreign language setting, they too were influenced to make the more ‘practical decision’.

In the second part of the study, the participants were presented with a less emotional alternative. Instead of pushing someone off the tracks, they could choose to switch the train tracks and direct the train to kill one person and save five. In this less emotional scenario, the use of native or foreign language did not matter—more than 80 percent of the participants chose the more practical option, even when taking into account their different cultural backgrounds. “People are less afraid of losses, more willing to take risks and much less emotionally connected when thinking in a foreign language,” said Professor Keysar, in UChicagoNews.

Language provides perspective

What both these studies have in common is that they demonstrate how using a different language changes one’s perspective. Following the constraints of a language’s usage shapes the way a person thinks, while using an unfamiliar language can provide emotional distance and allow a more logical decision to be reached. However, these changes in perspective may not be limited to just the alternate grammatical forms that are available or the familiarity with a language.

In fact, many languages have words unique to that language that express concepts that are harder to grasp and less often used in other languages. Examples include the Mandarin phrase, ‘wei wu wei, which describes deliberate and principled non-action, and ‘aware’, a Japanese word, which describes a bittersweet feeling associated with transcendental beauty. These findings serve to inform us and perhaps warn or educate us, on how we can influence ourselves by using different languages, or how we might already be subtly influenced to think and act in an increasingly transcultural world. Perhaps when faced with a difficult decision in the future (such as sacrificing one for the sake of many!), we might be able to more carefully evaluate our choices, simply by switching our current language in use. These studies also highlight how learning a new language might help us to gain a new perspective on life.

So go ahead. Learn another language!

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About the Author

Juliana Ariffin
Juliana Ariffin completed a PhD in human immunology at the Institute for Molecular Bioscience, The University of Queensland in 2015. She then worked as a postdoctoral researcher at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Harvard Medical School. Juliana is passionate about science communication and currently volunteers as a science writer and editor-in-chief for Scientific Malaysian magazine. In her spare time, she enjoys traveling, creative writing, and blogging. Follow her on Twitter @JulianaAriffin


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