By Julie Sedivy
What defines who we are? Our habits? Our aesthetic tastes? Our memories? If pressed, I would answer that if there is any part of me that sits at my core, that is an essential part of who I am, then surely it must be my moral center, my deep-seated sense of right and wrong.
And yet, like many other people who speak more than one language, I often have the sense that I'm a slightly different person in each of my languages - more assertive in English, more relaxed in French, more sentimental in Czech. Is it possible that, along with these differences, my moral compass also points in somewhat different directions depending on the language I'm using at the time?
Psychologists who study moral judgments have become very interested in this question. Several recent studies have focused on how people think about ethics in a non-native language - as might take place, for example, among a group of delegates at the United Nations using a lingua franca to hash out a resolution. The findings suggest that when people are confronted with moral dilemmas, they do indeed respond differently when considering them in a foreign language than when using their native tongue.
In a 2014 paper led by Albert Costa, volunteers were presented with a moral dilemma known as the "trolley problem": imagine that a runaway trolley is careening toward a group of five people standing on the tracks, unable to move. You are next to a switch that can shift the trolley to a different set of tracks, thereby sparing the five people, but resulting in the death of one who is standing on the side tracks. Do you pull the switch?
Most people agree that they would. But what if the only way to stop the trolley is by pushing a large stranger off a footbridge into its path? People tend to be very reluctant to say they would do this, even though in both scenarios, one person is sacrificed to save five. But Costa and his colleagues found that posing the dilemma in a language that volunteers had learned as a foreign tongue dramatically increased their stated willingness to shove the sacrificial person off the footbridge, from fewer than 20% of respondents working in their native language to about 50% of those using the foreign one. (Both native Spanish- and English-speakers were included, with English and Spanish as their respective foreign languages; the results were the same for both groups, showing that the effect was about using a foreign language, and not about which particular language - English or Spanish - was used.)
Using a very different experimental setup, Janet Geipel and her colleagues also found that using a foreign language shifted their participants' moral verdicts. In their study, volunteers read descriptions of acts that appeared to harm no one, but that many people find morally reprehensible - for example, stories in which someone cooked and ate his dog after it had been killed by a car. Those who read the stories in a foreign language (either English or Italian) judged these actions to be less wrong than those who read them in their native tongue.
Why does it matter whether we judge morality in our native language or a foreign one? According to one explanation, such judgments involve two separate and competing modes of thinking - one of these, a quick, gut-level "feeling," and the other, careful deliberation about the greatest good for the greatest number. When we use a foreign language, we unconsciously sink into the more deliberate mode simply because the effort of operating in our non-native language cues our cognitive system to prepare for strenuous activity. This may seem paradoxical, but is in line with findings that reading math problems in a hard-to-read font makes people less likely to make careless mistakes (although these results have proven difficult to replicate).
An alternative explanation is that differences arise between native and foreign tongues because our childhood languages vibrate with greater emotional intensity than do those learned in more academic settings. As a result, moral judgments made in a foreign language are less laden with the emotional reactions that surface when we use a language learned in childhood.
There's strong evidence that memory intertwines a language with the experiences and interactions through which that language was learned. For example, people who are bilingual are more likely to recall an experience if prompted in the language in which that event occurred. Our childhood languages, learned in the throes of passionate emotion - whose childhood, after all, is not streaked through with an abundance of love, rage, wonder, and punishment? - become infused with deep feeling. By comparison, languages acquired late in life, especially if they are learned through restrained interactions in the classroom or blandly delivered over computer screens and headphones, enter our minds bleached of the emotionality that is present for their native speakers.
What then, is a multilingual person's "true" moral self? Is it my moral memories, the reverberations of emotionally charged interactions that taught me what it means to be "good"? Or is it the reasoning I'm able to apply when free of such unconscious constraints? Or perhaps, this line of research simply illuminates what is true for all of us, regardless of how many languages we speak: that our moral compass is a combination of the earliest forces that have shaped us and the ways in which we escape them.
1. aesthetic: 美学的，审美的。
2. deep-seated sense of right and wrong: 根植于内心深处的是非观。
3. assertive: 自信的，果断的；sentimental: 多愁善感的；Czech: 捷克语。
5. delegate: 代表；lingua franca:（母语不同的人之间使用的）混合语，通用语；hash out: 通过长时间的讨论解决（或决定）；resolution: 决定，决议。
6. confront: 面临，遭遇；dilemma: 窘境，困境。
7. trolley: 电车；runaway: 失控的；careen: 歪歪斜斜地猛冲。
8. 你的旁边是一个开关，能够将电车切换到另一条轨道，这样便能救了那五个人，却会杀死旁边这条轨道上的另一个人。switch: 开关；spare: 赦免，不伤害。
9. 但是如果阻止电车的唯一办法是将一个陌生的胖子从人行桥上推下去来挡住电车呢？footbridge: 人行桥。
10. reluctant: 勉强的；scenario: 情节，脚本，情景介绍（scenario的复数）；sacrifice: 牺牲。
11. shove: 猛推；sacrificial: 牺牲的；respondent: 调查对象。
12. setup: 方案，计划；verdict: 决定，判断。
13. reprehensible: 极其恶劣的，应受谴责的。
14. 一种解释是，这种判断是由两种既独立又竞争的思维模式共同形成的，即一种是快速、本能的“感觉”，而另一种则是深思熟虑地顾忌多数人的最大利益。gut-level: 本能的；deliberation: 深思熟虑。
15. 当使用一门外语时，我们会不自觉地陷入一种深思模式，这只是由于一旦启动非母语我们的认知系统就会被告知准备进行超负荷运转。cue: 提示，暗示；congnitive: 认知的；strenuous: 费力的，繁重的。
16. paradoxical: 出乎意料的，荒诞的；in line with: 与……一致；font: 字体；replicate: 复制，重做。
17. 对使用母语和外语导致差异的另一种解释是，相比在学术环境中学到的外语而言，我们童年时期所使用的语言伴随着更强烈的情感共振。alternative: 供替代的，供选择的；vibrate: 使震动；intensity: 强度，力度。
18. laden with: 充满。
19. 强有力的证据表明，记忆使一种语言与其习得过程的经历和互动交织在一起。intertwine: 使缠绕在一起，紧密相连；interaction: 相互作用。
20. bilingual: 熟谙两种语言的；recall: 唤起；prompt: 引起，激起；occure: 发生。
21. in the throes of sth.: 处于……状态；passionate: 热情的，激昂的；streak: 使布满条纹；abundance: 大量，丰富；rage: 愤怒；infuse: 注入，使充满。
22. restrained: 拘谨的，受限制的；blandly: 平淡地，枯燥乏味地；bleach: 使变白，使褪色。
23. multilingual: 会说多种语言的。
24. 是我们的道德记忆，还是因充满感情的交互所产生的震动教会了我们何为“善”呢？reverberation: 回荡，回响；emotionally charged: 充满感情的。
25. reasoning: 推理；apply: 运用；unconscious constraint: 下意识的约束。
26. 或者，这一系列研究只是阐明了我们所有人的真实情况：无论我们说几种语言，我们道德指南针的形成都来自于最初塑造我们的力量与我们逃避自我的方式。line: 系列illuminate: 阐明，解释。
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