53 8.3. Language and Thinking

We have already discussed how bilingualism provides multiple cognitive advantages, however, studies show that the language that we use can also affect how we think. Bicultural individuals sometimes switch how they think, depending on the language that they are using. For example, metacognition – the ability to accurately self-evaluate how well one has done on a task—has been shown to vary across cultures. A meta-analysis by Zell and colleagues on the Overconfidence Bias (also known as the Better than Average effect) shows that people around the world have a tendency to think they have done better on a task than they actually did. However, European-Americans are more likely to over-estimate their performance than people from East Asia (Zell et al., 2020). Stankov and Lee (2014) also found that people in South Asia, the sub-Sahara, and Latin American countries were more likely to over-estimate how well they had done on a test compared to people from Western Europe, East Asian, and English-speaking countries (US, UK, Canada, Australia, etc.). But, what about bicultural individuals? Lechuga and Wiebe (2011) found that overconfidence in bilinguals depends on language context. When Mexican-Americans assessed their performance on a general knowledge test they expressed greater over-confidence when tested in Spanish, than when tested in English (Lechuga & Wiebe, 2011).

Other studies have also shown how language context can influence our thinking. In many languages, nouns are masculine or feminine. A study by Boroditsky and colleagues showed that we tend to attribute more masculine qualities to masculine nouns and more feminine qualities to feminine nouns (Boroditsky et al., 2003). Spanish-English and German-English bilinguals were asked to describe the attributes of some common objects. Half of the objects were masculine nouns in German and feminine in Spanish, and vice versa. Participants used words that were consistent with the gender of the noun in their descriptions. For example, “key” is masculine in German and feminine in Spanish. It was described as hard, metal, jagged, and heavy by German speakers, but shiny, intricate, and tiny by Spanish speakers (Boroditsky et al., 2003). However, language does not always influence how we think. Berlin and Kay (1969) compared how English speakers and the Dani people of Papua, New Guinea, think about colors. The Dani have only two words for color: one word for light and one word for dark. In contrast, the English language has 11 basic color words. The researchers hypothesized that the lack of color terms would limit the ways that the Dani people conceptualized color. However, there was no evidence for this. The Dani were able to distinguish between colors just as well as English speakers, despite having fewer color words at their disposal.

Linguistic Racism

It is important to acknowledge that enthusiasm for bilingualism (including bilingual educational programs) is relatively recent in the history of the United States. Flawed psychological studies conducted prior to the 1960s were widely used to advocate that children only use one language—Standard American English. Parents were told that they were harming their children’s cognitive development if they were raised bilingual and so many children were stopped from using their heritage languages. This practice often severed communication with older members of a child’s community, who did not speak English. These ideas were so pervasive they still persist among many teachers in early education today in the United States (De Houwer, 2020).

Some children are reluctant to use their heritage language(s) because they perceive them to have less status than the dominant societal language (De Houwer, 2020). These views are often a consequence of linguistic racism, where people are attacked, demeaned, and marginalized for speaking in a non-dominant language (Ek et al., 2013; Wang & Dovchin, 2022). Relatedly, from 1869 until 1969, tens of thousands of native American children were actively prevented from speaking their native language(s), when the United States Government mandated they were taken from their parents and forced into residential boarding schools. The children were punished for speaking native languages or engaging in the spiritual rituals that they had practiced at home. The Government claimed that this forced acculturation would benefit the children from a socioeconomic standpoint. Instead, this violent action has left lasting scars on the native American population, including high rates of substance abuse and mental illness (American Psychological Association, 2003). The American Psychological Association acknowledges that it failed to intervene against these harmful practices, and they not issue a protest until it was much too late (American Psychological Association, 2003). Recent studies have shown that revitalization and maintenance of indigenous ancestral languages is associated with increased wellbeing among native Americans and other indigenous people (Whalen et al., 2016).


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Introduction to Psychology (A critical approach) Copyright © 2021 by Rose M. Spielman; Kathryn Dumper; William Jenkins; Arlene Lacombe; Marilyn Lovett; and Marion Perlmutter is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.