Throw the man off the cliff? Depends on your language

footbridgeHaving just completed a book chapter on culture, language learning, and technology, I was intrigued by this past week’s episode of On the Media, which replayed a story I had missed from the spring, related to how using a second language can affect decision making and moral choices. The story was based on an article in PLoS One entitled “Your Morals depend on Language” by researchers from Spain and the U.S. The authors proposed to examine the wide-spread assumption that moral judgments about right and wrong are the “result of deep, thoughtful principles and should therefore be consistent and unaffected by irrelevant aspects of a moral dilemma. For instance, as long as one understands a moral dilemma, its resolution should not depend on whether it is presented in a native language or in a foreign language.” What they found was quite different. Using several different experiments they found that using a second language resulted in more dispassionate, utilitarian decision making. They used, for example, the well-known “trolley problem” – if you could save 5 people by sacrificing one (throwing a fat man over a bridge to stop a runaway trolley), would you do it. Typically only 18% of those presented with the dilemma sacrifice the man; but for those considering the problem in a foreign language, 44% were ready to throw the man off the bridge. Through this and other experiments, the researchers concluded that using a second language provides a helpful psychological and emotional distance to a difficult decision such as a moral dilemma.

An article in Scientific American reporting on the piece on PLoS One speculates that there may be cultural ramifications to the results: “Using a native language plausibly induces the feeling that one is reasoning about in-group members. Conversely, a foreign language could signal that the scenario is relevant to strangers, foreigners, or out-group members.” In fact, studies have been done which show different responses if it is implied that the people in danger are of a different ethnicity. Another question the study raises is that of bilinguals – do they decide differently depending on language used. This question was discussed in the interview from On the Media, with the researchers having found that with true bilinguals there was no distinction, with the assumption that the emotional resonance of the trolley dilemma is the same in both languages.

The idea that different languages can call up different emotional responses is consistent with what second language teachers experience in the classroom. Learning and using swear words in a foreign language, for example, can be tricky from a cultural perspective. The visceral reaction to certain naughty words does not normally carry over to a new language, thus making it likely to use them inappropriately. Linguists know that playing with language – experimenting with how to use new vocabulary or constructing nonsense sentences – can be quite helpful in acquiring a second language. One of the other findings of the study was that users of a foreign language increased their willingness to takes risks. This can in itself be helpful in language learning, i.e. trying out language combinations not used before. The study showed, however, it can also have a not so positive result – an inclination to gamble.

Hair as politics


Quvenzhané Wallis as Annie

Two recent stories on NPR highlight the importance of hair styles for personal identity, and point to the cultural and political messages hair can send. There is a trailer out for the new movie version of the muscial Annie, which features African-Americans in the lead roles. That includes Annie, the orphan with the full head of red, curly hair. In the movie, Quvenzhané Wallis plays Annie and, as can be seen in the trailer, her hair is not styled at all, not really an Afro, as is the traditional image of Annie. Terri Francis from Indiana University commented in the story:

“The original Annie had a red Afro,” she points out. So when you’ve got a black actress playing Annie, why not keep her ‘fro? “The ‘fro is too political or too threatening or too black,” Francis speculates. “Or something?”

Of interest as well is the fact that Daddy Warbucks (renamed Will Stacks in the film), traditionally bald, wears a hairpiece:

Black baldness, says Francis, means something different than white baldness.
“The baldness is not about losing hair,” she explains. “The baldness is badness.” (And just to be clear, that’s baadnessss with “two A’s, four S’s,” Francis says.) Giving Daddy Warbucks a hairpiece tames him a little bit, she says. It makes him less virile.

If black baldness may send a signal, that is also the case with dreadlocks. That may be particularly true if the African-American happens to live in a predominantly white neighborhood. That’s the case with Mark Quarles, who wears his hair in dreadlocks and lives in an affluent area on the Monterey Peninsula in California, along with his German-born wife and 2 children. In a conversation with NPR’s Michele Norris, Quarles discusses how his appearance influences how his neighbors view him, which is with suspicion. He mentions that before he grew his dreadlocks, he had established stable employment and financial security. That plays a role in the advice he says he would give his son, if he were to say he wanted to have the same hairstyle as his dad:

Well, if he came home and said he wanted to grow dreadlocks, I would share with him – well, son, I hope you’re prepared and ready for what’s going to come along with that because it’s going to take a great deal of patience, and you’re going to have to be ready for what people will say and what they will think about you… and I would tell him, son, I’ve completed my education. I have a very good career. We have a nice home, and I did all of these things before I decided to grow my dreadlocks. And, again, the world will make assumptions about you based on your appearance. So right now, I just need you to be a clean-cut, well-dressed kid without your pants hanging off of your butt.

Hair plays a major role as well in a new Venezuelan movie, Pelo Malo, meaning “bad hair” in Spanish. The main character is a 9-year old living in a poor neighborhood in Caracas. As is the case with many Venezuelans, the boy has European, indigenous and African ancestry, which gives him thick, curled hair. In advance of having his picture taken at school, he becomes obsessed with straightening his hair, trying everything from blow-drying to applying mayonnaise. The signal that sends to his mother is that he must be gay.

It’s not just Venezuelans who think about straightening their hair; it’s the case with many women of African descent. Chimamanda Adichie has written about the importance of hair for Nigerian women (in Americanah), and for her personally. In a video clip she expands on the cultural and political significance of black hair:

As a child of the 1960’s, my experience of hair as politics goes back to the signal sent by hippies letting their hair grow long, as beatniks did before them, as a way to signal visually that I am embracing a different culture from the (clean-cut) mainstream. This was famously expressed in “Almost cut my hair” by David Crosby, a celebration of letting your “freak flag fly”.