Thinking in a different language generates fascinating changes in ethics . What defines who we are? Our habits? Our aesthetic tastes? Our memories? If squeezed, I would reply that if there was a part of me that resides in my center, which is an essential part of the person I am, then surely it must be the center of my morals, my deep sense of right and wrong.
And yes, like many other people who speak more than one language, I often have the feeling of being a slightly different person in each language I speak: more determined in English, more relaxed in French, more sentimental in Czech. Is it possible that, along with these changes, my moral compass is pointing in different directions based on the language I am currently using?
Psychologists who study moral judgments have turned a great interest on the issue. Some recent studies have focused on understanding how people think of moral principles in a non-native language (this can happen, for example, at the UN among a group of delegates who must use a lingua franca to find a solution to a problem) . The results of these studies suggest that when faced with moral dilemmas, people respond differently based on the use of a foreign or native language .
In a 2014 article by Alberto Costa, volunteers were subjected to a moral dilemma known as the “rail cart problem”: imagine that a crazed rail cart is skidding towards a group of five people who are on the tracks unable to move. You are near a switch that can deflect the rail trolley in a different direction. This way you can save the five people, but result in the death of a person on the secondary track. Would you press the switch?
Many people would say yes. But what if the only way to stop the bogie was to push a fat stranger who is on the pedestrian walkway onto the tracks? People are very reluctant to say they would, although in both scenarios, one person is sacrificed to save five. Costa and his colleagues saw that by subjecting this dilemma to a language that volunteers learned as a foreign language, the inclinations to push the sacrificial person off the catwalk increased dramatically. It starts from 20% of the people who thought with their native language, to 50% of those who used the foreign language. (Both English and Spanish native speakers were included, with Spanish and English as their foreign language respectively.
Using different experimental configurations, Janet Geipel and her colleagues found that the moral judgment of the participants changed if they used a foreign language . In their studies, the volunteers read descriptions of actions that do not appear to harm anyone, but which many people find morally reprehensible. For example, stories of siblings having consensually protected sex with each other, or someone who had cooked and eaten their dog killed by a car. Those who read these stories in a foreign language (both English and Italian) judge these actions less wrong than those who read them in their native language.
Why is moral judgment important in our language or in a foreigner ? One explanation holds that these judgments involve two separate and competent ways of thinking: one of these is a fast and visceral feeling and the other is a careful reflection about the supreme good for the mass. When we use a foreign language, we unconsciously sink into the most reflective mode, simply because the effort to operate with a non-native language signals our cognitive system to prepare for a strenuous activity. This may be paradoxical, but it is in line with the discovery that reading math problems written with hard-to-read characters decreases the chances of making attention mistakes (although these results have been difficult to reproduce).
An alternative explanation is that these differences between native and foreign languages arise because the childhood language vibrates with a stronger emotional intensity than what we learn with academic settings. As a result, moral judgments made with a foreign language are less charged with emotional reactions than those made with the language we learned in childhood .
There is compelling evidence that memory interconnects the language with the experiences and interactions through which that language has been learned. For example, bilingual people are more likely to remember an experience if suggested in the language in which that event occurred. Our childhood language, learned through the pains of a passionate emotion – isn’t that of childhood, moreover, marked by an abundance of love, anger, wonder and punishment? – instills deep feelings. By comparison, languages learned in late age, especially if you learn through interactions limited to a school class or tastelessly learned through a computer or headphones, enter our discolored minds of the emotionality that is present in their native speakers.
Catherine Harris and her colleagues offer compelling evidence about the visceral responses that a native language can trigger. Using the skin’s electrical conductivity to measure emotional arousal (when adrenaline rears up, conductivity increases), they made two Turkish native speakers listen to them, who had learned English in old age, words and phrases in both languages. Some of these were neutral ( table ) while others were taboo ( shit ) or reproaches ( Shame on you!). The responses to the participants’ skin revealed that, compared with neutral words, the excitements intensified for the taboo words, especially when they were expressed in their native Turkish language. But the biggest difference between the two languages was evident with the reproaches: the volunteers replied that they had heard these reproaches in the voices of their family members. If language can serve as a reservoir for the strong memories of our younger transgressions and punishments, then it is not surprising that those emotional associations can color our moral judgments made in our native language .
The balance shifts further towards this explanation thanks to a recent study published in the journal Cognition . This new research has involved scenarios in which good intentions have led to bad results (giving a new jacket to a homeless person can make others think that the poor man has stolen it) or good results can be generated despite questionable motives (a couple adopts a disabled child to receive money from the state). Reading this in a foreign rather than a native language induces the participants to give more weight to the final result and to give less intentions in making moral judgments. These results contrast with the idea that people think more intensely when they use a foreign language, because other studies have shown that more careful reflections cause people to think more about the intentions behind people’s actions.
But the results harmonize with the idea that when we use a foreign language, emotional reactions – less compassion for those with noble intentions, less indignation for those with nefarious motives – diminish the impact of intentions. This explanation is reinforced by the discovery that patients with brain damage to the prefrontal ventro-medial cortex, an area that is involved in emotional responses, show a very similar reactive pattern, with the results privileging intentions.
So what is the real moral of multilingual people? Are they my moral memories? Is it the echo of emotionally charged interactions that taught me what it means to be “good”? Or is it the reasoning that I am able to apply when I am free from these unconscious limits? Or perhaps, this line of research simply explains what is true for all of us, regardless of how many languages we speak: that moral compass of ours is a combination of the first forces that formed us and formed the way we escape from them.