Its common for adults to dislike speakers of other languages. We frequently read of students flunked, workers fired, and immigrants shown the door for speaking the wrong language.
Language can become an issue on the national scale as well, with speakers of the power language suppressing the competition, while minority-language communities push for recognition. Even war can turn on language conflict: as far back as the biblical story of the shibboleth, one sure-fire way to tell friend from foe, before you killed them, was not by looks or ideology, but by the words they used.
Now a group of psychologists is suggesting that such potentially fatal language prejudice may be one of the earliest lessons we learn in life. Researchers at Harvard and the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales have found that infants as young as five months old prefer speakers of their own language to speakers of other languages, even before they themselves can talk. They even prefer speakers of their native dialects (Spelke et al., “The native language of social cognition.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, July 24, 2007).
When the researchers showed babies from English-speaking families videos of English- and Spanish-speaking adults, they found that infants who have yet to master “Mama” and “Dada” were already suspicious of people who said “Mami” and “Papi.”
The psychologists also showed videos of children speaking English and French to five-year-olds from English and French-speaking homes, and then asked which speaker the children would like to be friends with. The English-speakers picked the anglophone youngster. Not surprisingly, the French favored le français.
When asked which child they’d prefer to have as a friend, most English-speaking five-year-olds tested picked the anglophone.
The psychologists conclude, “The tendency to favor otherwise unfamiliar member’s of one’s own social group begins to emerge early in human life and well before children begin to learn about the nature and history of social-group conflicts.”
While the researchers don’t actually claim that monolingualism breeds intolerance, they hint that bilingual babies may be more accepting of diversity. And they suggest that because language is something we learn early in life, manipulating early language experience might actually help to reduce the social conflicts that emerge later on.
Language is a political issue in the U.S., and both sides in the American immigration and language war will greet this research as reinforcing their position.
New non-English-speaking immigrants might be tempted to argue that their bilingual children will actually wind up better citizens than their monolingual English peers because they are more open to difference and diversity. Unfortunately, those bilingual children are likely to have monolingual English-speaking children of their own, so the multilingual sensitivity effect, if it exists, won’t last long.
And supporters of immigration reform will certainly welcome these experiments, perversely, as proof that the best way to instill true Americanism in the young is to immerse them in an English-only environment by outlawing bilingual education as well as making English the official language and deporting anyone who doesn’t speak it.
But the fact that an infant shows an early preference for a stranger who speaks a familiar language, or that school children pick like-sounding children to be friends with in a test situation, while they are fascinating bits of data, cannot predict what will happen later on in life. Nor will exposing infants to multiple languages guarantee that they’ll grow up free from bias.
The American preference for monolingualism is more than a simple case of choosing people to be friends with who sound like us. After all, most of our ancestors weren’t English speakers. They didn’t sound like us at all.
Early language influence is important, to be sure, but later experience has an impact as well, and people have been known to grow and change. After all, children who don’t like peas can wind up as vegan adults, and those from the most tolerant of households can grow up to embrace orthodoxies or learn to hate.
Psychologists may test babies all they want, but it seems pretty clear that exposure to other languages early on in American history, during colonization, through the first waves of immigration and since the post-1965 immigration boom, hasn’t produced universal tolerance in this country, linguistic or otherwise. Instead, it’s reinforced the American preference for monolingualism and magnified demands for assimilation or expulsion.
The historical American rejection of foreign languages stems not from a preference for “our own kind” but rather from a false sense that the U.S is so special, so powerful, so imbued with divine mission, that we don’t really need the rest of the world, or its Babel of languages, to get by.
And we continue to believe this, despite the fact that we are totally dependent on speakers of other languages to produce our food, our clothing, our toys, TVs and computers. Even the military doesn’t seem overly concerned that they can’t understand the language of the enemy.
The Pentagon doesn't need psychologists to tell them that early exposure to other languages may produce sensitive and tolerant adults anxious to sit down over coffee and iron out their differences. That may be great for civilians, but the generals, even when they're asking Congress for more translators, so long as they're not gay translators, really want soldiers who know that talk is cheap, that when you're in combat, bullets speak louder than words.