Conscientious language

Can a foreign accent influence moral decision-making?
2024 until 2024
Project member(s)
Dr S.M. Brouwer (Susanne)
Project type

The Radboud Science Teams ‘Conscientious Language’ project focuses on the role that language and accents play in moral decision-making. The project consists of two parts that will essentially be carried out in one school day in the spring of 2024:

Part 1 (approximately 3 hours of class time)

Following an introduction by researcher Susanne Brouwer, pupils will learn about multilingualism and accents. They will exchange details about how many languages they each know and see whether they are able to recognise accents in sound clips. The pupils will subsequently learn about moral dilemmas and how these can be discussed with the help of a video of a thought experiment. The modes of instruction will also help the pupils to examine their own views of moral dilemmas, from both the rational and emotional perspective. At the end of the lesson, Susanne Brouwer will talk about her own research.

Part 2 (approximately 2 hours of class time)

The pupils will form groups and conduct an experiment from Susanne Brouwer’s own research. With the help of laptops, which will be provided by Radboud University if necessary, the pupils will let other children at school listen to a recording of two moral dilemmas, in which the words are spoken with or without a foreign accent. The groups will collect the data in an Excel file that will automatically calculate the results. At the end of the lesson, the researchers will talk to the pupils about how their research went and they will review the results together. They will then compare these results with those from Susanne Brouwer’s own research.

About Susanne Brouwer’s research

Each day we make choices that may have minor consequences (What should I put on my sandwich?) or major consequences (Should I wear a face mask if I’m not feeling well?). Living ethically means that our choices should be tailored to match certain moral principles. Previous research has shown that moral choices can vary according to the context, no matter how much we believe in our moral principles. For example, when people are presented with a moral dilemma, they seem to make more rational choices when thinking in their second language than they do when thinking in their mother tongue, which is when comparatively more emotional choices are made. This phenomenon is known as the Foreign Language Effect.

Susanne Brouwer has found that a similar phenomenon also occurs with foreign accents. Her research has shown that we make more rational choices when a moral dilemma is presented by a speaker with a foreign accent than we do when a moral dilemma is presented by a native speaker with no accent. This Foreign Accent Effect could be explained in a number of ways. Firstly, we feel more emotions in our native language, which makes us react more emotionally. Secondly, listening to a foreign accent requires more cognitive effort, and this makes us more rational. And lastly, psychological distance may result in a greater degree of rationality: when we listen to a foreign speaker, we distance ourselves more, because this person is not part of our social group.

Brouwer’s research is significant, because the majority of the world’s population is bilingual. This means that many people are exposed to foreign speakers of their mother tongue. This development can also be seen in the classroom, where an increasing number of pupils speak another language in addition to Dutch at home. This means that the Foreign Accent Effect also has implications for education. Making the richness of languages visible in the classroom helps pupils to become aware of their multilingualism and that of their classmates. This consequently helps pupils to develop an open attitude to other linguistic and cultural backgrounds, which can have a positive effect on how pupils interact with each other in class.