Languages seem to control personal preferences, too

As many bilingual individuals know, their abilities to speak two or more languages fluently is like hosting several persons within the same body.

One study shows that even infants born to bilingual mothers exhibit preferences for both languages because they heard both while in the womb.

Another study shows that bilingual speakers can focus better on tasks that are not related to communications. Psychologists theorize that the bilingual mind learns how to control disruptive influences like the second language better.

Those who speak more than one language frequently report that their entire body mannerisms change when they switch languages.

Then there is the Canadian study that found more evidence that speaking two languages can help delay the onset of Alzheimer’s symptoms by as much as five years.

Now comes a study from Harvard University that says that language may influence not only thoughts, but implicit preferences as well.

Bilingual individuals expressed different opinions of ethnic groups depending on which language was used to administer a test.

“Charlemagne is reputed to have said that to speak another language is to possess another soul,” said the Harvard paper’s co-author, Oludamini Ogunnaike, a Harvard graduate student, the university reported. “This study suggests that language is much more than a medium for expressing thoughts and feelings. Our work hints that language creates and shapes our thoughts and feelings as well.”

“Can we shift something as fundamental as what we like and dislike by changing the language in which our preferences are elicited?” asked co-author Mahzarin R. Banaji, a professor of social ethics at Harvard. “If the answer is yes, that gives more support to the idea that language is an important shaper of attitudes.”

According to an article prepared by Harvard:

Ogunnaike, Banaji, and Yarrow Dunham, now at the University of California, Merced, used the well-known Implicit Association Test, where participants rapidly categorize words that flash on a computer screen or are played through headphones. The test gives participants only a fraction of a second to categorize words, not enough to think about answers.

“The IAT bypasses a large part of conscious cognition and taps into something we’re not aware of and can’t easily control,” Banaji said.

The paper appears in the latest issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

The researchers administered the implicit association test in two settings: once in Morocco, with subjects who spoke Arabic and French, and again in the United States, with Latinos who spoke English and Spanish.

In Morocco, participants who took the test in Arabic showed greater preference for other Moroccans. When they took the test in French, that difference disappeared. Similarly, in the United States, participants who took the test in Spanish showed a greater preference for other Hispanics. But again, in English, that preference disappeared. The tests used first names that suggested the nationality of an individual.

The study results mean a lot more than quirks of the bilingual mind. They support the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis developed in the 1930s that says language influences thought and people who speak different languages think differently.

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