How The Language You Speak Changes Your Opinion Of The World

Bilinguals get all the perks. Better job prospects, a cognitive boost and even protection against dementia. Now new research shows that they can also opinion the world in different ways depending on the specific language they are operating in.

The past 15 years have witnessed an overwhelming sum of studies on the bilingual mind, with the majority of the evidence pointing to the tangible advantages of using more than one speech. Running backward and forward between speeches appears to be a kind of brain train, pushing your brain to be flexible.

Just as regular exert gives your body some biological benefits, mentally controlling two or more languages gives your brain cognitive benefits. This mental flexibility pays big dividends especially later in life: the typical signs of cognitive ageing occur later in bilinguals and the onset of age-related degenerative disorders such as dementia or Alzheimers are delayed in bilinguals by up to five years.

Germans know where theyre going

In research we recently published in Psychological Science, we studied German-English bilinguals and monolinguals to find out how different speech patterns affected how they reacted in experiments.

We presented German-English bilinguals video clips of events with a motion in them, such as a woman walking towards a auto or a man cycling towards the supermarket and then asked them to describe the scenes.

Is she walking? Or strolling towards the car? Walking via Radu Razvan/ www.shutterstock.com

When you dedicate a scene like that to a monolingual German speaker they will tend to describe the action but also the goal of the action. So they would tend to say A woman walks towards her car or a man cycles towards the supermarket. English monolingual speakers would simply describe those scenes as A female is walking or a man is cycling, without mentioning the goal of the action.

The worldview assumed by German speakers is a holistic one they tend to look at the event as a whole whereas English speakers tend to zoom in on the event and focus only on the action.

The linguistic basis of this tendency appears to be rooted in the way different grammatical tool kits situated actions in time. English requires its speakers to grammatically mark events that are ongoing, by obligatorily applying the ing morpheme: I am playing the piano and I cannot come to the phone or I was playing the piano when the phone rang. German doesnt have this feature.

Research with second language users depicts a relationship between linguistic proficiency in such grammatical constructions and the frequency with which speakers mention the goals of events.

In our study we also found that these cross-linguistic differences extend beyond language usage itself, to nonverbal categorisation of events. We asked English and German monolinguals to watch a series of video clips that proved people strolling, biking, operating, or driving. In each set of three videos, we asked topics to decide whether a scene with an equivocal aim( a woman walks down a road toward a parked car) was more similar to a clearly goal-oriented scene( a woman walks into a house) or a scene with no goal( a woman walks down a country lane ).

German monolinguals matched ambiguous scenes with goal-oriented scenes more frequently than English monolinguals did. This change mirrors the one discovered for speech usage: German speakers are more likely to focus on possible outcomes of people actions, but English speakers pay more attention to the action itself.

Switch languages, change perspective

When it came to bilingual speakers, they appear to switch between these views based on the language context they were given the task in. We found that Germans fluent in English were just as goal-focused as any other native speaker when tested in German in their home country. But a similar group of German-English bilinguals tested in English in the United Kingdom were just as action-focused as native English speakers.

In another group of German-English bilinguals, we maintained one speech in the forefront of their intellects during the video-matching undertaking by making participants repeat strings of numbers out loud in either English or German. Distracting one language seemed to automatically bring the influence of the other speech to the fore.

When we blocked English, the bilinguals acted like typical Germans and saw equivocal videos as more goal-oriented. With German blocked, bilingual topics acted like English speakers and matched ambiguous and open-ended scenes. When we astonished subjects by switching the language of the distracting numbers halfway through the experiment, the subjects focus on aims versus process switched right along with it.

These findings are in line with other research showing distinct behaviour in bilinguals depending on the language of operation. Israeli Arabs are more likely to associate Arab names such as Ahmed and Samir with positive terms in an Arabic language context than in a Hebrew one, for example.

People self-report that they feel like a different person when using their different languages and that expressing certain feelings carries different emotional resonance depending on the language they are using.

When judging risk, bilinguals also tend to make most rational economic decisions in a second language. In contrast to ones first language, it tends to lack the deep-seated, misinforming affective biases that unduly influence how risks and benefits are perceived. So the language you speak in genuinely can affect the style you think.

Panos Athanasopoulos, Professor of Linguistics and English Language, Lancaster University

Read more: www.iflscience.com

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