Language also shapes our attitudes

November 17th, 2010 - 5:15 pm ICT by IANS  

Washington, Nov 17 (IANS) The language we speak may shape not only our thoughts, but also our attitudes.

Harvard University psychologists found that bilingual individuals’ opinions of different ethnic groups were influenced by the language in which they took a test examining their biases and predilections.

Implicit attitudes, positive or negative associations, which people may be unaware they possess, have been shown to predict behaviour towards members of social groups, the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology reports.

“Charlemagne (emperor of the Romans) is reputed to have said that to speak another language is to possess another soul,” says co-author Oludamini Ogunnaike, a graduate student at Harvard.

“Can we shift something as fundamental as what we like and dislike by changing the language in which our preferences are elicited?” asks co-author Mahzarin R. Banaji, professor of Social Ethics at Harvard.

“If the answer is yes, that gives more support to the idea that language is an important shaper of attitudes.”

Ogunnaike, Banaji, and Yarrow Dunham, now at the University of California, used the well-known Implicit Association Test (IAT), where participants rapidly categorise words that flash on a computer screen or are played through headphones.

The test gives participants only a fraction of a second to categorise words, not enough to think about their answers, according to a Harvard statement.

“The IAT bypasses a large part of conscious cognition and taps into something we’re not aware of and can’t easily control,” Banaji says.

The researchers administered the IAT in two different settings: once in Morocco, with bilinguals in Arabic and French, and again in the US with Latinos who speak both English and Spanish.

In Morocco, participants who took the IAT in Arabic showed greater preference for other Moroccans. When they took the test in French, that difference disappeared.

Similarly, in the US, participants who took the test in Spanish showed a greater preference for other Hispanics. But again, in English, that preference disappeared.

“It was quite shocking to see that a person could take the same test, within a brief period of time, and show such different results,” Ogunnaike says.

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