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Study: Language molds likes, dislikes

Cambridge, Mass. -- The language we speak may influence not only our thoughts, but also our perceptions or preferences about other ethnic groups, U.S. researchers say.

Scientists at Harvard University say implicit attitudes people may be unaware they possess can predict behavior towards members of social groups and can be molded by the language they speak, ScienceDaily.com reported.

"Can we shift something as fundamental as what we like and dislike by changing the language in which our preferences are elicited?" Mahzarin R. Banaji, a professor of social ethics, asks.

"If the answer is yes, that gives more support to the idea that language is an important shaper of attitudes," he says.

The researchers administered a well-known test called the Implicit Association Test.

"The IAT bypasses a large part of conscious cognition and taps into something we're not aware of and can't easily control," Banaji says.

The researchers administered the IAT in two different settings: once in Morocco, with bilinguals in Arabic and French, and again in the United States with Latinos who speak both English and Spanish.

In Morocco, participants who took the IAT in Arabic showed greater preference for other Moroccans. When they took the test in French, that difference disappeared.

Similarly, in the United States, participants who took the test in Spanish showed a greater preference for other Hispanics. But again, in English, that preference disappeared.

"It was quite shocking to see that a person could take the same test, within a brief period of time, and show such different results," Harvard graduate student Oludamini Ogunnaike says.

"It's like asking your friend if he likes ice cream in English, and then turning around and asking him again in French and getting a different answer."

"These results challenge our views of attitudes as stable," Banaji says. "There still remain big questions about just how fixed or flexible they are, and language may provide a window through which we will learn about their nature."

Copyright 2010 United Press International, Inc. (UPI).

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