Over the past few months I’ve been interviewing dozens of Chinese aged 18-24 for a few articles exploring how the Communist Party is trying to maintain legitimacy among young intellectuals. But the other day a behavioral psychologist I spoke to highlighted a trend in my interviews that had completely slipped under my radar.
When I told him what some of the people were saying, he asked if I’d been speaking to them in Mandarin. I had with several, but I’ve been drawn more to interviewees who speak English well for in-depth interviews. Partly for convenience, but partly because they’ve tended to say more interesting and unexpected things. This wasn’t surprising at all to the doctor.
“Learning a different language, especially a western language, is already engaging in divergent thinking,” E. Thomas Dowd, the behavioral psychologist, explained to me. “When you speak a different language you begin to think differently. People who speak more than one language tend to have a broader range of cognitive abilities, they think more divergently, they’re more creative, and can converse better with people of more diverse cultures.”
When I taught university English in Nanjing I noticed this with my students to some extent. The English majors tended to think much more critically and liberally (ie. against the Party line) than my non-English major students. I always chalked this up to the fact that English majors have foreign teachers and often use western English media to study.
But after talking with the psychologist, I went back and looked at my interviews. Even the good English speakers who hadn’t spent any time with foreigners or viewing western media seemed to have liberal tendencies, suggesting the mere act of acquiring a foreign language played a big role. Meanwhile, the people that spoke little or no foreign language had ideas most similar to the government line. Looking at individuals, the young man who spoke the most idiomatic English said stuff that could probably get him arrested, and one girl who speaks English and Russian said some incredibly critical things too. If I were to make a chart of all the interviewees comparing English ability to thinking that contradicts government scripting, the correlation would be pretty apparent.
There were exceptions and undoubtedly other factors in play. The sample was also too small (around 35) and unscientific to make any concrete conclusions, but there have been studies that show, to a certain extent, language shapes how you see and interact in the world. For instance with German, if you want to say you met your neighbor last night, the language compels you to reveal the gender of that neighbor.
The suggestion that simply learning a foreign language makes you more liberal-minded was news to me though. Important news. It’s tempting to go for the subjects that can speak English well, but it would seem that that doesn’t really give a good representation of Chinese opinion; even in articles that focus on educated elite. It’s good reminder for journalists, but maybe just as importantly, to foreigners who come to China to visit or teach English.
The bulk of their real exposure to Chinese opinion is from foreign language learners. Thus, it’s pretty natural to marvel at how unexpectedly liberal and open-minded Chinese are in these situations; especially in regards to politics. But that picture is likely pretty skewed. If you can speak Chinese and take a walk over to a non-foreign language department of the university, you’ll probably get a very different impression.