New study: Your language might affect your views of others

Ben-Gurion University researcher studied 44 bilingual undergraduate Arab Israeli students.

July 19, 2010 02:11
3 minute read.
Ben-Gurion University.

ben gurion university building 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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The language you are speaking at any given moment can influence your thinking about others, according to an Ben-Gurion University of the Negev researcher who studied 44 bilingual undergraduate Arab Israeli students from Hebrew-speaking universities and colleges.

Dr. Shai Danziger, a senior lecturer at BGU’s School of Business and Management, together with Dr. Robert Ward of the University of Wales in Bangor, UK, published their study in the latest issue of the journal Psychological Science.

Titled “Language Changes Implicit Associations Between Ethnic Groups and Evaluation in Bilinguals,” the study says it is an overstatement to claim that language determines thought.

However, while the researchers did not look at the specific influence of language structure, they did study the way in which language use can selectively influence the accessibility of socially relevant associations. Their hypothesis was that Israeli Arabs who speak both Arabic and Hebrew will think about Arabs in a more positive way in an Arabic-speaking environment than in a Hebrew-speaking environment and vice versa.

Danziger, who studied both Hebrew and English as a child, says he reacts differently in the two languages.

“I think English is more polite than Hebrew, which involves more chutzpa. It seems that people can present different personalities in different environments. The study shows that personality that is expressed can be influenced by the language a person is speaking at that moment.”

Danziger, a cognitive psychologist by training who was born in Israel but raised in Michigan and California, did his postdoctoral work at the University of Wales, where he met cognitive psychologist Ward.

He said that he thought Israelis who speak English think differently and behave more politely than when they speak in Hebrew. Being in an English-speaking environment might even make them drive more safely, he told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday.

He has not studied whether haredi Jews who usually speak Yiddish would behave in a more Zionist, pro-state way when speaking Hebrew, but said that he is planning more studies on whether using a certain language at a given time will retrieve associations of that language.

Twenty-nine of the students were women; 22 of the participants were Muslim Arabs, nine were Beduin from the South, seven were Beduin from the North, and six were Christian Arabs. Their mean age was 22.

The students were given an “implicit association test” in which discrimination is studied.

Single words are rapidly shown on a computer screen that have to be classified quickly by pressing one of two buttons on the keyboard.

It analyzes automatic thinking processes, as the participant has almost no time to think before answering. Positive and negative descriptive words and names of people were presented.

In this case, Arab names such as Ahmed and Samir were presented along with Jewish names such as Avi and Ronen. If people automatically connected “positive words” with Arab names and negatives ones with Jewish names, they would be able to classify words more quickly than if they automatically connect between words and names in the opposite direction.

In this study, bilingual Israeli Arab students were tested in both languages to see whether their mental associations between the descriptive words and names changed when they used Hebrew. Danziger and Ward found that the students found it easier to connect Arab names with positive characteristics and Jewish names with negative characteristics than Arab names with negative characteristics and Jewish ones with positive characteristics.

This effect, they found, was stronger when the test was in Arabic. But when they were tested in Hebrew, the students showed less positive discrimination towards Arab names.

Thus the researchers showed that “the language in which we speak can change the ways we think.”

“Our findings are consistent with the notion that language and culture are intricately linked, and that bilingual people may think about their social world in different ways, depending on their current language context,” the researchers concluded.

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