Current Affairs

Languages & Stereotypes: A Challenge for Associations

18th December 2020

Franco Viviani, former President of the International Council for Physical Activity and Fitness Research, and anthropologist at the University of Padua, Italy, reflects on the concept of stereotypes, their link with spoken languages - and their implications for the lives of associations.

Scientists are gradually discovering the importance of spoken languages for cognition and their impact on our social life, as well as on change and innovation. This is fundamental for associations, as they usually gather people speaking different languages, but few is known about the consequences that different linguistic backgrounds have on an association’s life. 

Nowadays international associations mainly use English as their main language, for historical reasons. During centuries different languages became dominant one after the other. To briefly go back in history, in the Western world for example, after Alexander the Great, Greek was spoken from Greece to India, then Latin became the universal language in the Middle Age and, when Islam spread, Arabic became the main language from North Africa and South Spain to many parts of Asia. From the 17th century French became the European lingua franca and after the Industrial Revolution and the expansion of the British Empire, most of the world was obliged to became familiar with the Latin grammar and the English syntax. 

The subtle ways languages work

At present, 7000 or so languages are spoken around the world and, as they describe it each in their very own way, they are fundamental for what we remember and how we learn. Let’s take “I saw my uncle Robert on 68th street in New York, going to my Consulate” as an example. In Mandarin, as there are different words for different types of uncles, I would have to specify whether my uncle is my father or my mother’s brother and if he is related to me by blood or marriage. In Russian, the use of “I saw” would reveal my gender. If I used a New Guinea language, the verb would have revealed whether the event happened now, yesterday or in a distant past. If I used Indonesian, the verb would not give away whether the encounter had already happened or if it will. 

All this to say that languages can convey a lot of different realities. English speakers tend to phrase things in terms of people doing things, for example they say: “Charles broke the vase”, while Spanish and Japanese speakers are less likely to mention the agent when describing an unfortunate event. This is not because they have a bad memory (as they remember the agent of an intentional episode), but because of the constraints of their languages. German is even more accurate, as it imposes to its speakers the tendency to specify the beginning, what lies in between and at the end of an event. In this regard, Germans are unconsciously led to understand the effects of the actions of others. 

There is more: the structure of languages can make it easier or harder for us to learn new things. For example, Mandarin reveals the base-10 structure of numbers more transparently than English does, so Chinese kids can learn the base-10 insight sooner. Languages, then, can affect how quickly children figure out whether they are male or female. Finnish has no gender marking, Hebrew-speaking boys and girls figure out their own gender at about one year (as the world “you” is different depending on gender), so they understand earlier their status than Finnish-speaking children. English-speaking kids fall in the middle.

The extra capacities of bilinguals 

In the past decade studies have shown that the language(s) people talk has effects on how they think but a problem remains unsolved: how do the differences in languages create dissimilarities in thoughts? Studies on people who are fluent in two languages have shown that they change how they see the world depending on which language they are speaking at a given time. 

This because they have an extra gear, ie the possibility to slip into two different frames offering them more possibilities. It’s a bit like listening music in mono or stereo: they can observe the world from different perspectives. This has been widely used to measure involuntary or voluntary biases – how naturally things such as positive traits and ethnic groups seem to go together in people’s minds, for instance.

The repercussions for associations 

The effects for associations are many, mostly connected to gender and racial stereotypes, as it is well known that the underrepresentation of women and minority groups in scientific and technical fields create subtle disparities. 

A study by Lewis & Lupyan focused on gender, published in Nature Human Behavior (4, 1021-1028, 2020), showed the subtle ways in which words convey meanings. It was carried out on 25 languages, and some results are very interesting, as the authors conclude that there is the “possibility that linguistic associations shape people’s implicit judgements”. 

Till not long ago the distinction between explicit and implicit stereotypes was unclear. An example of explicit stereotype: if a child is told that boys are better physicists than girls, they will develop a negative stereotype about female physicists. Implicit stereotypes work more subtly, as people cannot be aware to have been exposed to information that has led them to think in stereotyping terms. 

Previous studies in English showed that the word “man” was frequently associated to “job” and “money”, while “woman” was usually coupled with “home” and “family”. To varying degrees, in nearly all of the 25 languages in the above-mentioned study, a relationship between words relating women to family and man to career was also found. 

The languages having stronger gender stereotypes lead the individuals who speak them to think in stereotypes terms, a sign that languages actually shape the way we reflect. Another finding: languages that describe jobs with gender distinctions induced more gender stereotypes in their speakers, even if languages like neo-Latin, which usually makes a distinction at the end of a word, are thought to prevent them. Clearly, the study was not conclusive, but other pilot studies on how implicit stereotypes are formed in children’s books show that stereotypes have a greater impact than we think.

The “racial” conundrum

Race is an obsolete term, banned by most of the anthropologists. But it’s still widely used, creating positive or negative generalizations about specific groups, relayed by parents, peers, teachers and/or the media. Generalizations contain a judgement, so when we meet somebody who does not correspond to our stereotypes, our tendency is to consider them as an exception, and not reconsider that our belief comes from a stereotype. The oversimplified idea of a particular type of person is activated unconsciously, escaping our cognizance and intentional control, leading us to express sympathetic or detrimental decisions and actions. In this regard, clichés can affect problem solving and decision making, impacting our association’s life.  

Many studies have shown that stereotypes influence recruitment, job assignment and training opportunities, attract or disengage members, sometimes preventing the access to diversity. What’s more: they can influence decisions about the inclusiveness in a board, marketing campaigns and the way customers are treated. 

How to counter all this? Firstly, we must recognize that we’re all biased. Examples? 60% of the American male CEOs are over 6’ (182 cm.), while only 15% of the Americans are. Cognitive psychologists have found that physically attractive job candidates have more chances to be hired. Similarly, job interviewers tend to showcase a so-called similar-to-me effect, or they favour people that somehow have similarities with them. In short (and sadly), the name Frank works better than Francisco: it’s simply more “employable”. At this point, dealing with biases even with the best intentions is difficult, as we must recognize people as individuals. We must be motivated to be even-handed, but research shows that this requires a deliberate and conscious effort. To combat these elusive mind shortcuts, I suggest an insightful source.

What to do? 

We can start combatting them in simple ways, for example using imagery, as research shows that two to three minutes of counter stereotypes effort with imagination can minimize them once recognized. Socially, Tropp & Godsil suggest to provide specific counter case-in-point examples, for instance mentioning former President Obama when hearing a negative stereotype on Afro-Americans. 

We must also keep in mind that innovation and inclusion often go hand in hand: different people with a composite linguistic background can be very helpful when it comes to new ideas – they can help put biases and prejudices in perspective. Diverse boards are also suggested, while policies should become flexible and inclusive, and diversity a “must”. 

In conclusion, we must be aware that our brains fall into many cognitive pitfalls because, over time, our evolution has provided us with the ability to find clues in the environment and to form inferences about the causes of the events we observe. We also retain a natural predisposition to believe in strange things, from ghosts to conspiracies, because the thick pudding we have inside our heads induces us to see causal relationships and connections even where there are none, especially in topics on which we are not very knowledgeable or on facts that are not under our direct control.

If we were purely rational beings, to persuade us of something it would be enough to line up a series of facts. Unfortunately, however, two modes coexist in our way of thinking: a rapid one, which conveys intuitions, and another which is slower, uncomfortable and cumbersome, and which expresses deliberate, calculated and conscious thinking. Often, alas, the intuitive mode prevails, because it requires less effort.

Evolution has made us ‘mental savers’. So, we must be able to constantly look inside ourselves to combat what the validity of what we think. Not an easy task. As Dan Kahan of Yale University wrote, it’s not because we know about cognitive biases that we are immunized from them.

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