Does knowing a second language make you more or less likely to be racist? You might be surprised.

In the February 2011 cover of Scientific American, there’s a paper by Lera Boroditsky on ‘How Language Shapes Thought’.

Lera is the assistant professor of cognitive psychology at Stanford so I’m going to guess and say she probably knows what she’s talking about. And probably more so than the dinner party bore who confidently asserts that different languages don’t variously restrict our range of feelings. Apparently Germans cantake as much enjoyment from love as from engineering prowess, although it’s now believed that our native language does shape the ‘experiencing’ of our experiences.

Towards the end of the paper Lera quotes research at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel, which tested Arabic-Hebrew bilinguals in Israel for automatic biases.

Here’s how it goes. Arabic-Hebrew bilinguals in Israel were asked to press buttons as quickly as possible in response to words flashed up under two different set ups.

In the first set up, respondents were told,
See a Jewish name like ‘Yair’? Press M.
See a positive trait like ‘good’ or ‘strong’? Press M.
See an Arab name like ‘Ahmed’? Press X.
See a negative trait like ‘mean’ or ‘weak’? Press X.

In the second set up, when they saw either a Jewish name or a negative trait, they were told to Press one key. And when they saw either an Arabic name or a positive trait, they should press the other key.

The idea is that by measuring how quickly the bilingual subjects were able to respond in the two different set ups, it would reveal involuntary biases and how naturally things such as positive traits and ethnic groups seem to go together in people’s minds.

Annoyingly, there’s a jump in logic or implication in the paper – here’s me with no qualifications saying this so I am happy to be corrected – because Lera goes on to make a point about the results depending on whether the subjects were tested in Hebrew or Arabic, when she hasn’t mentioned testing in different languages, only different names. So in case it’s me, I’ll quote directly:

“The investigators found big shifts in these involuntary automatic biases in bilinguals depending on the language in which they were tested. The Arabic-Hebrew bilinguals…showed more positive implicit attitudes towards Jews when tested in Hebrew than when tested in Arabic.”

It seems in answer to Ben’s wonderings then, that No, speaking another language doesn’t automatically remove racism. Perhaps the benevolent interpretation of these results is that we need to test monolinguals to see if their implicit attitudes were even more biased.

My own personal experience is that with a wife from Denmark and bi-lingual children, a second language doesn’t always help you understand another culture but it can occasionally make you laugh.

My 5 year old son lifted a piece of rotten wood in the garden and told me to take a look at the ‘bench-biters’: a back translation from the Danish “baenke bidder”, meaning  wood-lice.

I would have checked this with my wife’s mother who was visiting at the time, but I feel the need to watch my words with her because the Danish for mother-in-law is”svigemor” – which literally translates as “poison mother”.



Chris West, 4th July 2011.