[lg policy] Saving El Gordo

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Wed Jan 21 15:52:47 UTC 2015

 Saving El Gordo

(Credit: We Love Philosophy)

A few years ago, a Spanish psychologist and his team of researchers asked
about 700 students to decide whether they would kill one person to save
five. It was a version of the classic trolley dilemma
A small train is trundling toward five people on the tracks who will perish
in the crash; you see this from your perch on a footbridge and realize you
can save them by shoving one of your fellow pedestrians—a fat man—off the
bridge, into the train’s path. Do you do it? Only 18 percent of the
students said they would, when answering in their native tongue. But when
presented with the scenario in a foreign language, one in which they were
proficient, the proportion of pushers jumped to 44 per cent. (Not for this
conversation, but has anyone ever tested whether responses change when it’s
a skinny man you’d be sacrificing?)

The researchers proposed three reasons for the difference
Because processing the question in a foreign language is more difficult,
perhaps the students were more tempted to choose a response randomly. But
when presented with a less extreme scenario, where they could save the five
potential victims by flipping a switch rather than personally pushing their
neighbor in front of the train, the difference in responses shrank to one
percentage point (81 percent would flip the switch in their native
language, 80 percent in a foreign tongue). If the students were choosing
randomly, you would have expected about half to push the man and about half
to flip the switch.

Maybe, instead, it was an issue of culture rather than language. But the
pattern held whether the researchers questioned native Spanish speakers in
English or native English speakers in Spanish.

Ruling out those explanations supported the third theory: that people
behave in a less emotional, more logical and utilitarian manner when
operating in a foreign tongue. Albert Costa, the psychologist who led the
study, puts this down to the context in which people learn languages—that
is, as a child at home among family and friends, versus in school—as well
as their proficiency, with further research showing the gap in responses
shrinking as study participants’ foreign-language fluency rises.

Costa and others have already pointed out that this less emotional
reasoning could be a business advantage: Here’s to corporations in search
of heart-headed leaders looking across borders. As someone who spends a lot
of her time among young scientists working hard to improve their English, I
wonder what the impact might be on the world of research. The Munich
University of Technology has (not uncontroversial
plans to hold all its master’s levels courses in English by 2020. This is
seen by many as a headache for German professors and students alike, but
there’s no denying English is the lingua franca in science and technology
today, or that English-speaking programs will attract talent from abroad
(students and staff) much more than German ones. Perhaps because these
arguments are so sound, no one has yet felt the need to claim that working
in a foreign language sharpens the scientific mind. But if we buy that,
universities in the English-speaking world might also take note and
consider forcing their students to try reasoning their way through problems
in Spanish, Chinese, or even German.

Of course, science is not all logic, but I have a feeling creativity might
also get a boost when we leave the familiar terrain of English. Anyone who
has learned a second language knows the challenge of working around
vocabulary you don’t know; surely this flexibility should transfer to other
areas of the brain. Maybe that’s Professor Costa’s next project.

Meanwhile, here’s some art to accompany all this science: Akhil Sharma
reading Tobias Wolff’s “The Night in Question
which features a trolley dilemma or two of its own.



 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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