People’s Language May Influence Their Thoughts of Others

By Helena Zhu
Helena Zhu
Helena Zhu
August 3, 2010 Updated: August 3, 2010

[xtypo_dropcap]L[/xtypo_dropcap]anguage may influence people’s thoughts and views of others, according to a study conducted on Israeli-Arab college students who speak both Arabic and Hebrew. The majority of them speak Arabic at home and started studying Hebrew in elementary school. The researchers found that Israeli-Arab college students were more positively biased toward Arabs when they were tested in Arabic than when they were tested in Hebrew.

Taking advantage of the tension between Arabs and Israelis, researchers Dr. Shai Danziger of Ben-Gurion University in Israel and Dr. Robert Ward of Bangor University in the U.K. designed an experiment testing the difference between students’ thinking in Arabic and Hebrew.

"I am a bilingual and I believe that I actually respond differently in Hebrew than I do in English,” said Danziger in a press release. "People can exhibit different types of selves in different environments. This suggests that language can serve as a cue to bring forward different selves."

The study was conducted through a computer test known as the Implicit Association Test (IAT). Subjects were asked to look at words flashing on the computer screen and categorize them by pressing two keys on their keyboard.

The subjects were asked to categorize Arab names, Jewish names, positive words, and negative words using just two keys. For example, in one section of the test, one key represented Arab names and positive words, while another was pressed for Jewish names and negative words. In this case, the subjects had to associate Arab names with words describing good traits and Jewish names with words describing negative traits. In a different section of the test, Jewish names were paired with positive words and Arab names went along with negative words on the same key.

If a person reacts faster in one section, it means that he or she tended to associate things the same way as how they were paired on the keys in the test.

The Implicit Association Test was given to the bilingual students in both languages to see if the language affected the results.

Generally, most of the subjects found it easier to associate Arab names with positive words and Jewish names with negative words.

However, this effect was much stronger when the test was given in Arabic than in Hebrew.

“Our results demonstrate that language use can selectively influence the accessibility of socially relevant associations,” reads the research paper, which was published in the June issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

“More generally, our findings are consistent with the notion that language and culture are intricately linked, and that bilingual people may think about their social world in different ways, depending on their current language context.”

Helena Zhu