Elgazette Logo newtrans  The magazine for English language teaching and English medium education

Foreign language quashes ethical qualms

By: Claudia Civinini

Would you kill a person to save another five?

Answering moral dilemmas is no easy feat, but imagine having to do it in your foreign language. How would this affect your decision?

Studies have found that bilinguals are more likely to choose a utilitarian answer in their L2 than in their L1 – maximising net benefit over the ethics of causing harm.

But why is this? Could it be because a foreign language slows down your thinking process and allows you to consider the greater good? It turns out this happens not because foreign language users think more, but because they ‘feel less’, the authors of a new study said. This means using a foreign language dampens the emotional response to the violation of an ethical rule. US researchers randomly assigned bilingual participants to conditions where they would be presented with moral dilemmas in their foreign language or in their native language.

Over six experiments, they found that participants in the native language conditions responded more ethically than those in the foreign language conditions.

The effect was least pronounced when the question format explicitly stated the consequences of the actions (for example, ‘would you push one man over the bridge to save five lives, even though the man will die?)

Interestingly, utilitarianism scores – how likely participants were to approve of harmful actions when they maximise net welfare, and disapprove when they don’t – was also lower for participants in the foreign language conditions.

Beyond blunting the emotional response to prohibited actions such as murder, the foreign language effect also showed a decrease in utilitarian reasoning.

The authors say this result may hint at the cognitive difficulty of using a foreign language, especially if proficiency is not optimal.