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