Musings

Does Morality Change in a Foreign Language?

captureI just came across this interesting article in Scientific American: How Morality Changes in a Foreign Language.

I admit when I saw the title, I was expecting it to be another re-hash of linguistic relativity, aka. the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.  However, the focus of this article is not on comparisons of how speakers of different language may or may not experience the world differently, but rather on the contrast between any one speaker’s first language and any “foreign” language acquired later in life and how they may make decisions differently in the different language in their repertoire.

I haven’t delved into any of the source studies in their article yet,  but for me it would be crucial to see if the issue of proficiency is discussed. Of course someone is going to make decisions differently in a different language if their level of proficiency is very low. The issue then shifts from the discussion of first vs. foreign language to languages in which one is fluent vs. less proficient, and how that affects decision-making.

They author does make the link between decision-making and cognitive activity, and this would be an area where proficiency would come into play. The lower the language proficiency, the higher the cognitive load:

“Why does it matter whether we judge morality in our native language or a foreign one? According to one explanation, such judgments involve two separate and competing modes of thinking—one of these, a quick, gut-level “feeling,” and the other, careful deliberation about the greatest good for the greatest number. When we use a foreign language, we unconsciously sink into the more deliberate mode simply because the effort of operating in our non-native language cues our cognitive system to prepare for strenuous activity.”

It would be interesting to compare groups of people who were fluently bilingual from childhood vs. those who learned their foreign language later in life, and see if the above explanation held out.

Learner identity is also brought up in the first paragraph:

“And yet, like many other people who speak more than one language, I often have the sense that I’m a slightly different person in each of my languages—more assertive in English, more relaxed in French, more sentimental in Czech. Is it possible that, along with these differences, my moral compass also points in somewhat different directions depending on the language I’m using at the time?”

What’s I think it’s interesting to remember here is not that the linguistic attributes of Czech or French make you behave in or feel a certain way, nor is it simply a matter of different brain activity in L1 v. foreign language centres in the brain. The host of social factors present when you learned and use each of those languages shapes you identity as a user of that language. This is cognitive science research that focuses on the brain, but in cases of linguistic or language learner identity, I think it is very simplistic to strip away the myriad of social factors that influence how you act and feel in a foreign tongue.

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Discussion

One thought on “Does Morality Change in a Foreign Language?

  1. It may also be interesting to see whether living in the culture where the L2 is spoken affects morality and how speakers see the world. I think I’m more direct when I speak in German (I am fluent) because that’s the model of language use I’m used to from the culture. But while I was living in the UK learning German, I used British English communication norms to guide how I used German, so I probably used the language differently.

    Posted by Clare | September 19, 2016, 3:43 pm

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