foreign language

How Morality Changes in a Foreign Language?

It is common sense that culture and language are so intertwined that they are hard to separate. That’s why it is difficult to really understand and communicate another language without being immersed in its culture. Different cultures don’t always think the same and may have a different set of ethics and morals. The words that have come to express and represent one culture may not be suitable for use in another. This makes for an intriguing question: does one’s morality change when using another language?

Like so many questions about human behaviour it’s really hard to get a definitive answer. How can you test differences in morality sufficiently objectively to enable any sensible conclusion? Not for want of trying, there has indeed been several research projects focused on that very theme. An article in Scientifc American by Julie Sedovy was written quite recently which explored some of that research.

In one experiment, a moral dilemma was posed to different groups of people. This was the “trolley problem”. The study group was told that a large trolley was careering out of control along some tracks and would kill a group of 5 people standing on the tracks further down who couldn’t move if left alone. By engaging a nearby switch (to the study group) the trolley could be shunted down a side track which would miss the group of 5 but would instead hit a single person, killing him. Each person was asked what their choice would be: to leave the trolley as it was or engage the switch. Nearly everybody agreed that they would sacrifice one life to save five. Then they were asked what they would do if the only way to stop the trolley was to physically shove someone in front of it, thereby still saving the group of five. Interestingly, the group who was asked this question in their own native language was far more reluctant to do this than the group who were asked in a non native language.

Similar experiments revealed an interesting pattern: when asked to give an opinion about something normally morally repugnant, such as eating your pet dog if it had died, less viewed this negatively when asked about it in a non-native language.

There is no hard and fast answer to why these results have been observed, but the observation seemed to hold fast whatever the language that was used. For example, if Spanish speakers were asked to make a decision about something normally morally repugnant in English their responses were similar to English speakers asked to make the same decision in Spanish.

Psychologists have speculated that perhaps one’s moral compass is more entwined with the language that one has learned from birth. When asked to make a moral decision in one’s own native language one responds with a ‘gut feeling’ that has been developed during one’s life time. When asked a similar question in a less familiar language the cognitive challenge of thinking in that language makes one think more clearly and less emotively about the decision.

These studies seem to suggest that one’s moral compass does indeed depend on the language that one uses, but is not so much tied to a particular language. Rather it varies depending on how familiar the language is that one is using.

Author: Alina Williams
My interest in writing became important to me in 2001 after I gained an MA in Applied Linguistics and I started to move into writing as a means of securing an income. I have since then specialised in writing blog posts and web pages for a variety of clients including those in the legal and translation niches. I have built up the ability as a highly skilled writer to communicate with a variety of audiences and in an array of styles and formats. Over the past few years, I have worked with executives, entrepreneurs, industry experts and many other professionals in writing and publishing, SEO web content, blogs, newspaper articles and more.

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