Language and thought

An article I came across today on Science Daily discusses a study which found that language can affect attitudes and thoughts. The study found bilingual speakers of Spanish and English in California showed a distinct preference for Spanish names and words when tested in Spanish, but no such preference when tested in English, and that bilingual speakers of Arabic and French in Morocco showed a similar preference for Arabic names and words when tested in Arabic.

These findings suggest that learning other languages perhaps makes you less likely to be prejudiced towards other people, at least when your speaking their languages.

This entry was posted in Language.

7 Responses to Language and thought

  1. Qcumber says:

    I don’t get it. If the test is in Spanish, people expect words and names in Spanish. If the test is in Arabic, people expect words and names in Arabic. If the test is in English, English words and names are expected, etc. I fail to see how it could prove these people are less prejudiced.

  2. Simon says:

    I think what they were measuring was whether people had a positive or negative reactions to the words they were shown. When tested in their native language, they had positive reactions to words in their language, and negative reactions to words in the other language. When tested in the other language, there were few if any negative reactions.

  3. Qcumber says:

    Thanks a lot for the explanation Simon. A very odd test indeed.

  4. Qcumber says:

    I once read a very interesting article about explanations given by Filipinos for some specific skin disease very common in their country. When questioned in English, they gave a scientific explanation (I am not sure but I think it was hookworm.). When asked in Tagalog on another occasion, they said people with this disease were bitten by a venomous frog.

  5. Petréa Mitchell says:

    The IAT doesn’t directly measure a “positive” or “negative” reaction. It works by measuring the difference in response times when pairing positive or negative words with certain images.

    In the classic version, the subject is first tested on associating “good” words with white faces and “bad” words with black faces, and then vice versa. (And hopefully half the subjects start with bad/white, good/black and then do the opposite, or else all you’re measuring is a training effect.)

    So what this research says is that people are quicker to match positive words with ethnic faces that match the language they’re being tested in. It’s not a generalized decline in prejudice, or else it would turn up in English as well. What it’s more likely saying is that language acquisition isn’t just a matter of building an internal dictionary; part of it– at least in reaching fluency– involves constructing a new persona to handle interactions in that language.

    Okay, now I have to explain “persona”. In psychology, personas are the different personalities you express in different settings. For instance, you may be the quiet one at work, but expressive and enthusiastic at your hobby club. Facebook awkwardness comes from not having separate spaces to express the different personas you would use with different acquaintances in real life.

    I’ll spare you the debate over the validity of the IAT…

  6. Andrew says:

    Anything you learn about another people and culture is going to help make you more tolerant of them, and language is a HUGE element of a people and their culture, so it’s massively useful in getting people to understand each other and get along, hence my personal emphasis on how important learning new languages is for people and how it should receive much more emphasis in the current educational system than it does.


  7. Petréa Mitchell says:


    Sadly, learning more doesn’t always make a person more tolerant. Someone who starts with a negative view of a culture may deliberately seek out information that gives them an even more negative view; and some kinds of propaganda consist entirely of the truth, but selected so as to make the targets look bad.

    Now, the kind of information you absorb in learning a language well and properly– that *is* the sort of thing which does decrease prejudice.

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