Foreign languages can change our belief in superstitions


It’s often said that speaking a foreign language can change your personality. Now, a recent study from the University of Trento in Italy suggests that it can also impact our beliefs — particularly superstitions.

Researchers found 400 native German speakers with a proficiency in English and told them about a hypothetical high-stress scenario. In some instances, they told study participants to imagine themselves on the morning of a high-stakes exam or the day an important job application is due.

Then researchers told participants about a disruptive event in their native language or in English: Some were given regular, everyday events — like encountering a clogged sink — for the sake of creating a control group. Others, however, were told about positive or negative events alluding to a cliché superstition — think a shattering mirror as a bad omen or spotting a four-leaf clover as good luck.

Here’s what they found: Study participants who were told about a positive stroke of luck or a bad omen in their foreign language — English — generally had a weaker emotional response than those who heard the scenarios in their native language of German.

In other words, participants were less likely to believe the disruptive events meant anything about their future if they were told the story in their foreign language.

This is likely because we take things more literally in second languages. Basically, symbolic meanings might be strongest when we think about them in our native languages — a realm of speech and thought where we’ve simply had more opportunity and time to build, say, the association between a rabbit’s foot and luck.

“When we encounter a concept loaded with superstitious symbolism in our second tongue, we know what it means literally, but the emotional associations don’t come along automatically,” as an article in the British Psychological Society Research Digest put it.

So, though we sometimes think of our beliefs as a wired aspect of our personality, it turns out that at least our superstitions could be heavily influenced by external factors — such as language.