moral language?

If you speak a language well enough to get along, but not really well, it’s an effort. You need time to think and process and a lot of energy can go into making sure you get the grammar right. As a learner of Polish 2 decades ago, I spoke quickly so nobody could hear the word endings, in which my grammatical mistakes would be revealed in all their glory. When I applied this strategy to learning German, I was told my foreignness still stood out, as I spoke faster than a native speaker normally would.

The cognitive effort of speaking a newish language is important for understanding and being understood, of course.

But it is also important for making moral decisions.

Albert Costa and his colleagues at Spain’s Universitat Pompeu Fabra gave some intermediate level non-native speakers a moral problem.

If you could stop a train by pushing a fat man off a bridge, and save four other people stuck on the line, would you do it?

Or, less directly, if you could stop that train by flicking a switch to divert it, so it killed only one person on the other track, instead of four, would you do that?


(The illustration is from The Economist)

Intermediate level speakers could understand the problem, and the implications of the solution, but they were using the cognitive and rational part of their brain to speak a less familiar language. So in this language, they were more likely to take the “rational” and utilitarian decision to push the fat man. 1 in 5 would do this if asked in their native language, with all the nuances and intuition of a fluent speaker, but in the foreign language, the proportion jumped to 1 in 3.

Costa and his colleagues checked this for different language combinations, to reduce the cultural variations in morality. They interviewed English and Spanish speakers of each other’s languages, as well as Korean and French speakers. Boaz Keysar, a Chicago University psychologist working on the study, said the findings are crucial for medical and legal decision making. If in the EU and the UN, as migrants or in international corporations, more and more people are speaking a language they know less well, are they likely to make more rational and less emotional decisions? What kind of impact does this have?

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