If we want to broaden our thinking, we must enlarge our vocabularies. Recent research shows how learning a foreign language changes the way we think about ethics. Experiments conducted at the University of Chicago indicate that non-native speakers tend be less emotional and more impartial in ethical decision-making.
Researchers confronted people with a typical moral dilemma. Imagine there is a run-away train headed for a group of five people. Is it morally correct to push a bystander in front of the train, slowing it down and saving those five people?
Non-native speakers are more likely to choose to kill the one in order to save the five. People are less likely to reach that conclusion when asked the question in their native language.
One explanation offered is that people who think in a secondary language tend to process information in a more formal and less intuitive way. Thinking in a native language is more deeply rooted in intuitions, emotions and taboos.
Second-language acquisition teaches humility. Our ignorance of other languages should make us less proud and self-assured.
This research is thought-provoking. Could international negotiations be affected by the choice of language? Or consider what this suggests about debates about immigration and multiculturalism. Immigrants may be thinking in more objective terms, while monolingual nativists are more emotional and driven by intuition.
This research also leads us to imagine that foreign language acquisition could help build a more peaceful world. Learning to communicate in a foreign language opens the door to a more cosmopolitan point of view. A new language helps you see the world differently. It also helps you understand the limits of your own language and worldview.
Second-language acquisition teaches humility. The easy conversations of children babbling in a foreign tongue are mind-blowing when you do not know the language. Our ignorance of their languages should make us less proud and self-assured.
Philosophers have long been interested in the language question. In the 17th century, the philosopher Leibniz—one of the inventors of calculus—hatched a plan to construct a universal language. This language would be used to transmit science. It would facilitate global commerce. And it would help create world peace.
In the 19th century, philosophers abandoned this cosmopolitan project in favor of an emphasis on national identity and the rich worldviews found in the depths of culture. The philosopher Hegel once said that we only truly possess ideas that are expressed in our mother tongue.
Romantics like Hegel celebrated the deep poetic resonances of life, language and thought. It is true that the overtones and connotations of the mother tongue run deep. But Romanticism can breed ethnolinguistic nationalism, which is divisive and undermines the cosmopolitan ideal.
These days the dream of a universal language has given way to the need for linguistic sensitivity and cultural pluralism. Instead of advocating a universal language, we need more and better understanding of other people’s languages and worldviews.
The philosopher Wittgenstein once said, “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” This implies that we can only think what we can say. If our vocabulary and grammar are limited, so too is our thinking.
While some people remain wedded to closed-minded nativism, the future is cosmopolitan, multicultural, and polylinguistic.
This sounds abstract, so an example might help. Consider how the introduction of foreign words into English helps us think more clearly. In English, for example, we have one word for love. But there are three words for love in Greek: eros (sexual love), philia (the love of friendship), and agape (brotherly or universal love). Understanding these words can help us think more carefully about love.
Or consider how much the American vocabulary (and diet) has been enriched by the inclusion of foreign words for food, from burritos and croissants to samosas and tofu.
While some people remain wedded to closed-minded nativism, the future is cosmopolitan, multicultural, and polylinguistic. We benefit from being uprooted. Change causes us to grow. It is good to be forced to think about things in new ways – and in a new language.
If you want to broaden your mind, travel, eat new foods and learn a new language. This can affect the way you think about ethics. It can make you more humble. And it can also help you develop agape, the kind of love that is hospitable and welcoming to strangers.
Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State: @PhilosophyFiala