The surprising power of the language

We are the language we speak
It is not uncommon to see a Japanese man bowing while talking on the phone. One of us is Japanese-American and actually bows to the phone, but only when she speaks Japanese. Behaviors can become so habitual that they emerge even when there is no need. Bilingual and bicultural individuals know firsthand that the way they behave can depend on the language they are speaking. As scholars with thirty years of experience added together in the field of bilingualism and decision-making processes , our research shows that who we are at a given moment can depend on the language we are using.

This occurs because when we live an experience, an association is created with the language used . For bilingual people, this means that some memories are more closely related to one language than another, a phenomenon known as language dependent memory . For example, a childhood memory is more likely to resurface when the language that was spoken during that time of life is spoken again. Just as nostalgic music has the power to transport us at a specific moment in our life, so the language we use at a given moment helps us to draw on the memories associated with it and bring them back to the surface. The memories will also often be more emotional in the presence of a link between thelanguage spoken at the time the experience took place and the language spoken at the time of remembrance .

Our way of thinking and feeling can therefore change according to the language we use . For example, bilingual people have an accentuated stress reaction when listening to taboo words and reproaches in a native language. This phenomenon can be partly explained by the fact that our childhood memories associated with learning “swear words” or being scolded by parents occurred in our mother tongue. This means that a situation can be perceived as psychologically or emotionally more distant when viewed through the lens of a foreign language.

Given the key role that emotions play in our decision-making process, people are often less partial and more consistent in making decisions in the less emotional language, that is, in the foreign language. Language even goes so far as to influence our moral judgments and decisions. When asked if they would sacrifice a person’s life to save a group, people who speak more than one language are significantly more likely to say yes if they answer in a foreign language. Negative feelings that can prevent you from making difficult decisions will fade if a language other than your mother tongue is used . For people who are responsible for the lives and well-being of others, the potential impact could be significant.

Furthermore, our memories can be strongly influenced by the way we evaluate probability and risk. Take for example the fact that “terrorist attacks” are ranked among the greatest fears of Americans, although there are thousands of more chances of being killed by a firearm. This is due in part to availability heuristics, which is the tendency to evaluate the probability of events based on clear and immediate examples stored in our mind. Due to language dependent memory, the use of different languages ​​could bring to mind different examples, thus changing our perception of risk. Which could lead to substantial consequences, since the degree of perceived risk can influence the choices we make in any context, from medical decisions to national security. In the United States, for example, over 25% of doctors have foreign origins and many of their patients also speak at least one other language . It is important to be aware of how much the language being spoken can influence the decisions we make and those around us.

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