Cognitive Linguistics, Language in the News, Second Language Experiences

How Languages Can Change Our Choices

Recently, there’s been a study into how language appears to affect morality based decision-making. I’ve seen this story covered by several sources, so it’s possible you may already be familiar. If not, the basic idea is discussed below, or you can read this more comprehensive version from The Economist.

The Study:

Researchers asked study participants to make a hypothetical decision about sacrificing a life to save five in two different ways (either pushing someone on to a train track to save five people OR throwing a switch that will definitely kill the one man, but save the five people—sacrificing yourself is not an option). They randomly posed the situation to half of their study subjects in their self-described native language (which was, for the most part, English). Then they asked the other half in a second language (either Spanish, Korean, English or French). These were all languages that the study subjects knew, but they were not native bilinguals.

The Results:

The researchers found that when asked in their native language, only a few subjects said they would push one man to save five people. But when asked in their second language, more people chose to push the man.

The Possible Explanations:

The article mentions that the reason behind this may have to do with how the brain makes decisions, and how this ties into how languages are processed. In their second languages, the subjects’ brains use their logical “cognitive system” to make a decision, because speaking a less-known language requires more conscious thought. In their native languages, the speakers’ brains could rely on their more intuitive decision-making system, because speaking required less conscious decision-making and awareness

I can’t say what the right explanation might be, although the one put forth by the article (and summarized above) makes sense to me. I’ve experience the sensation of my brain being “maxed out” when speaking in a second language. When I lived in France, I found myself taking almost daily afternoon naps before dinner, just because I felt so tired of thinking so much all day. I also used the brain power excuse for eating so many delicious French desserts, because, I argued, the sugar recharged my brain.

I will say this, however: logical decisions are often considered more reliable, because they’re based on reasoning and time. But I’ve read several books that argue that in some situations, decisions based on intuition are just as good, sometimes more so, because they’re based on personal experience. And any skill, like learning a second language, that helps a person develop both types of decision making models sounds like a good thing to me.

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