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Why You Should Be Friends With Bilingual People

2012 January 8
by Eric Horowitz

Bilingual education education is starting to pick up steam in the U.S, and why not — two languages are better one. But there is another aspect of speaking two languages that’s overlooked, and it’s something much more important than being able to impress girls in your salsa dancing class with your command of the imperfect subjunctive. Research has shown that bilingual children are better able to reason about other’s beliefs, and a new study shows that the same is true for adults.

Subjects in the experiment were given a variation of a false belief test used to determine if children have developed “theory of mind” — the ability to differentiate between what they think and what other people think. The test shows/tells the story of two children who each put their toys away in different places. After the first child leaves, the second child moves the first child’s toy to a different place. Subjects are then asked where the first child will look for the toy when the child returns.

Although all adults in the study got the answer correct (most three-year-olds do not), the researchers used an eye tracker to examine where subjects looked when the question was posed. They found that adults who were not bilingual were significantly more likely than bilingual adults to look in the wrong place (i.e. the place where the toy actually was, not where the child would look for it). It appears non-bilingual adults could not initially block out their own knowledge of where the toy was. On the other hand, bilingual adults were able to control their ego-centric bias and focus on the knowledge of the second child.

Obviously it’s a bit of a stretch to go from split second glances to large conclusions about the ability to understand the perspective of others, but the study is important because a good deal of the negativity in the world (that’s my euphemism for war, violence, hate, etc.) arguably stems from the human inability to properly see things from another person’s perspective. And even if political or religious persecution wouldn’t come to a screeching halt if the persecutors did a better job putting themselves in their victims shoes, a better theory of mind would surely lead to less rudeness and random acts of contempt. In fact, I think this is the best argument for “culture.” People don’t really need TV, movies, music, and festivals — they could find better things to do. What makes those things invaluable is that they help people see and understand lives that are not their own.
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Rubio-Fernández, P., & Glucksberg, S. (2012). Reasoning about other people’s beliefs: Bilinguals have an advantage. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 38 (1), 211-217 DOI: 10.1037/a0025162

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