Second languages can twist perception

You might be lying, but only in one language
18 August 2020

Interview with 

Manon Jones, Bangor University


A picture of someone talking, drawn on a blackboard


It’s not just the words we use that can impact how we understand the world around us, the language that we use can have its own, surprising impact, as Adam Murphy’s been finding out from Manon Jones, from Bangor University...

Adam - The languages we speak can impact the way we understand the world. In my limited experience, for example, Irish people are less likely to just say yes or just say no, because Irish has no words for yes and no; you respond with the verb "I did" or "I didn't". But just how deep can this change be? Manon Jones from Bangor University told me how much our perceptions can change based on the languages we speak.

Manon - At the very basic perceptual level it's being shown by one of the professors, Professor Guillaume Thierry, in our lab that you actually perceive colours differently depending on how you categorise them in your native language. So Greek speakers will see the colours dark blue and light blue differently because they have two distinct colour terms for those shades of blue, whereas the same doesn't apply to green. And obviously in English we just use light blue and dark blue, and so the same doesn't apply. So actually what you can show with this methodology is that Greek speakers will actually see those colours differently, as though they are two distinct colours, whereas English speakers don't. The language that you speak and the terminology that you use seem to shape even perceptual experiences. So in our lab we've measured the brain's electrical activity to examine how bilinguals interpret the meaning of sentences differently, depending on which of their two languages the sentence is in. We had them read Welsh and English sentences that were culturally relevant, or ones that were just general knowledge about the world; and found that a Welsh sentence about Wales enabled them to access the meaning more quickly, but for the exact same information in English - so translation equivalents of those sentences - this didn't happen. And it also didn't happen for general knowledge either. So we didn't find that distinction between the two languages.

Adam - And it's not simply speaking a different language that changes you. Your perceptions can change between the different languages if you speak more than one.

Manon - A followup study we did actually showed that bilinguals can even start denying the truth in one of their languages but not the other, which is quite a peculiar split, if you like, in the person's cognition. So when we presented sentences to them that express positive or negative sentiments about their culture, what happens is they'll accept it's truth, they'll accurately judge it as correct in the native language, but when the same information is presented in the second language they deny it. So bilinguals seems to be more honest basically in their native language, but in the second they can protect themselves from difficult truths that they might find quite unpalatable. So some of these other studies that tie in with our results have shown that if you give people difficult decisions, like fictitious scenarios - say, you can save one person or 200 people from a runaway train - they make more rational decisions in the second language, but more emotional and fairly irrational decisions sometimes in the native language. There are some other studies out there showing that the native language promotes cultural biases actually against an outgroup. Cultural bias can even be made stronger if you induce the bilingual into a negative mood; then they're more likely to categorise outgroup names as negative as well, so they're more likely to be basically expressing a cultural bias against an outgroup, and conversely showing a positive bias towards their own group. It widens that discriminatory gap.

Adam - Which I thought was a little insidious.

Manon - It is a bit insidious, yeah. And obviously this is lab-based work, but all the stuff that we do in the lab is obviously very tightly controlled. And it's a way of showing, at the micro level, what's happening out in the wild in societies; and so we can extrapolate, to a certain extent, how these cultural biases and prejudices arise.


Add a comment