The study, entitled "How Foreign Language Shapes Moral Judgment," appeared in the Journal of Social Psychology. What Geipel et al. did was to present multilingual individuals with situations which most people consider morally reprehensible, but where no one (not even an animal) was deliberately hurt -- such as two siblings engaging in consensual and safe sex, and a man cooking and eating his dog after it was struck by a car and killed. These types of situations make the vast majority of us go "Ewwwww" -- but it's sometimes hard to pinpoint exactly why that is.
"It's just horrible," is the usual fallback answer.
So did the test subjects in the study find such behavior immoral or unethical? The unsettling answer is: it depends on what language the situation was presented in.
Across the board, if the situation was presented in the subject's first language, the judgments regarding the situation were uniformly harsher and more negative. Presented in languages learned later in life, the subjects were much more forgiving.
The researchers controlled for which languages were being spoken; they tested (for example) native speakers of Italian who had learned English, and native speakers of English who had learned Italian. It didn't matter what the language was; what mattered was when you learned it.
[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]
A related study by Catherine L. Harris, Ayşe Ayçiçeĝi, and Jean Berko Gleason appeared in Applied Psycholinguistics. Entitled "Taboo Words and Reprimands Elicit a Greater Autonomic Reactivity in a First Language Than in a Second Language," the study showed that our emotional reaction (as measured by skin conductivity) to swear words and harsh judgments (such as "Shame on you!") is much stronger if we hear them in our native tongue. Even if we're fluent in the second language, we just don't take its taboo expressions and reprimands as seriously. (Which explains why my mother, whose first language was French, smacked me in the head when I was five years old and asked her -- on my uncle's prompting -- what "va t'faire foutre" meant.)
All of which, as both a linguistics geek and someone who is interested in ethics and morality, I find fascinating. Our moral judgments aren't as rock-solid as we think they are, and how we communicate alters our brain, sometimes in completely subconscious ways. Once again, the neurological underpinnings of our morality turns out to be strongly dependent on context -- which is simultaneously cool and a little disturbing.