The language we speak may influence not only our thoughts, but our implicit preferences as well. That’s the finding of a study by psychologists at Harvard University, who found that bilingual individuals’ opinions of different ethnic groups were affected by the language in which they took a test examining their biases and predilections.
The researchers administered the IAT in two different settings: once in Morocco, with bilinguals in Arabic and French, and again in the U.S. 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 U.S., 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. “It’s like asking your friend if he likes ice cream in English, and then turning around and asking him again in French and getting a different answer.”
In the Moroccan test, participants saw “Moroccan” names (such as Hassan or Fatimah) or “French” names (such as Jean or Marie) flash on a monitor, along with words that are “good” (such as happy or nice) or “bad” (such as hate or mean). Participants might press one key when they see a Moroccan name or a good word, and press another when they see a French name or a bad word. Then the key assignments are switched so that “Moroccan” and “bad” share the same key and “French” and “good” share the other.
Linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf first posited in the 1930s that language is so powerful that it can determine thought. Mainstream psychology has taken the more skeptical view that while language may affect thought processes, it doesn’t influence thought itself. This new study suggests that Whorf’s idea, when not caricatured, may generate interesting hypotheses that researchers can continue to test.
“These results challenge our views of attitudes as stable,” Banaji says. “There still remain big questions about just how fixed or flexible they are, and language may provide a window through which we will learn about their nature.”