live chat Live chat
insight by wfx

Welcome to Wordwide FX's new enterprise!

Insight by WFX is a synthesis of our passion for languages and the financial markets. Here you will find technical and fundamental analyses from our clients, media partners and contributors in different languages, as well as discussions on languages and translation. And of course we will keep you updated on what is happening inside Wordwide FX Financial Translations. Hope you enjoy it! Greetings from the Wordwide FX team!


Trump has turned words into weapons. And he's winning the linguistic war


By Wordwide FX Financial Translations

Via The Guardian

From ‘spygate’ to ‘fake news’, Trump is using language to frame – and win – debates. And the press operate like his marketing agency

Donald Trump has been a salesman for nearly half a century. He is now selling himself, his worldview and his self-serving views of the law and the truth. His principal tools are language and the media. By faithfully transmitting Trump’s words and ideas, the press helps him to attack, and thereby control, the press itself.

Trump knows the press has a strong instinct to repeat his most outrageous claims, and this allows him put the press to work as a marketing agency for his ideas. His lies reach millions of people through constant repetition in the press and social media. This poses an existential threat to democracy. 

Language works by activating brain structures called “frame-circuits” used to understand experience. They get stronger when we hear the activating language. Enough repetition can make them permanent, changing how we view the world.

Even negating a frame-circuit activates and strengthens it, as when Nixon said “I am not a crook” and people thought of him as a crook.

Scientists, marketers, advertisers and salespeople understand these principles. So do Russian and Islamic State hackers. But most reporters and editors clearly don’t. So the press is at a disadvantage when dealing with a super salesman with an instinctive ability to manipulate thought by 1) framing first 2) repeating often, and 3) leading others to repeat his words by getting people to attack him within his own frame. 

Language can shape the way we think. Trump knows this. Here are some of his favorite manipulation techniques.

First, he weaponizes words. The modifier “crooked” convicted Hillary Clinton without a trial. The media’s constant repetition sealed the verdict. “Fake news” proclaims that the news is fake. The use of “fake” is designed to delegitimize the press itself. Trump also uses strategic name-calling to undermine the Russia investigation, tagging it as a “witch-hunt” by the “deep state” in an attempt to shift blame. It’s false, but when the press repeats it, his narrative wins.

The media perpetuated a Trump lie by repeating “spygate”, which falsely characterized the FBI informant as a spy. Once made, such a mistake by the press is hard to correct.

A possible immediate correction might have been to use “RussianSpyGate,” repeatedly focusing on the Russian contacts of Trump’s campaign aides Carter Page and George Papadopoulos, with the FBI informant checking on Russian spying in the Trump campaign. This would have had to be done over and over, with reporters bring it up whenever “spygate” was used. Not an easy fix.

Then there are what cognitive scientists call “salient exemplars” – well-publicized individual cases, where wide publicity leads the public to take them as having a high probability and typifying a whole class. Trump turns them into weaponized stereotypes. He is a master at defaming entire groups of people as liars, rapists, terrorists – or in the case of US law enforcement and intelligence agencies – agents of corruption.

He knows how to avoid taking responsibility for a claim. “Maybe.” “I don’t know.” “We’ll see.” Yet the claim has been made and stands, with no responsibility for it.

In The Art of the Deal, Trump discusses using “truthful hyperbole” – exaggerated claims suggesting a significant truth. His hyperbole can be either positive (“great”, “terrific”, “the best”) for what he likes or negative (“a disaster,” “the worst ever”) for what he dislikes. “The worst trade deal ever” frames trade agreements as “deals”, where “deals” are seen as zero-sum games that you either win or lose – and winning is the only good outcome. “Doesn’t it feel good to win!” “You’ll win so much, you’ll feel tired of winning!”

“Deal” and “winning” are not just words. They are central to his worldview. Those who win deserve to win; those who lose deserve to lose. Those who don’t win are “losers”. This is a version of individual responsibility, a cornerstone of conservative thought. There is a moral hierarchy. Those who win are better than those who lose.

“America first” means that America is better than other countries, as shown by its wealth and power. And that wealth and power should be used to win – to acquire more wealth and power in all its “deals” – even with our allies. Power includes the power to bully or punish – for example, to impose tariffs or pull out of treaty – or at least threaten if others don’t go along with him.

Trump’s tweets are not random, they are strategic. There are four types: 1) Pre-emptive framing, to get a framing advantage. 2) Diversion, to divert attention when news could embarrass him. 3) Deflection: Shift the blame to others. And 4) trial balloon – test how much you can get away with. Reporting, and therefore repeating, Trump’s tweets just gives him more power. There is an alternative. Report the true frames that he is trying to pre-empt. Report the truth that he is trying to divert attention from. Put the blame where it belongs. Bust the trial balloon. Report what the strategies are trying to hide.

Cornered by the Russia investigation, Trump is working overtime to twist the facts, the law, and reality in general, to benefit himself. As the indictments and the evidence pile up in favor of a case for Trump-Russia collusion in the 2016 election, he’s made it clear that he considers himself above both the law and the truth. As president of the United States, anything he says – true or false – is faithfully parroted by the press. This needs to change.

Trump is subjecting American democracy to a brutal test. Our survival requires that the press halt its unwitting complicity in his power grab. The press has become complicit with Trump by allowing itself to be used as an amplifier for his falsehoods and frames. When the press gives Trump absolute power to dictate coverage, it abdicates its role as a pillar of democracy.

How can the press do a better job? Here are some basic suggestions:

First, journalists must understand how propaganda works on the brain and grasp the cognitive science that marketers of propaganda have implicitly mastered: frames, metaphors, narratives and brain basics.

Second, keep a steely focus on the fact that American democracy is under attack by a foreign power, possibly with collusion from the sitting president’s campaign. This is a crisis. Certain rules don’t apply in a crisis, especially the rule that the press must amplify the president’s words, whatever they are.

Third, stop letting Trump control the news cycle. Newsgathering should be a serious affair controlled by editors whose power rivals any politician’s. Stop chasing his tweets and elevating every sideshow. Start every story with truth and the context of what’s really important to citizens in a democracy. More BBC, less TMZ.

Fourth, don’t spread lies. Don’t privilege Trump’s lies by putting their specific language in the headlines, the leads or the hashtags. Don’t repeat the lies assuming people will automatically know they’re lies. People need to know the president is lying, but be careful about repeating the lies because “a lie repeated often enough becomes the truth”. Repetition of lies spreads them.

The job of the free press is to seek the truth and report the truth, especially the morally important truths and their consequences. If the press fails to do this job, not only does it lose its freedom, but we all do.


People are more honest when using a foreign tongue, research finds


By Wordwide FX Financial Translations

New UChicago-led research suggests that someone who speaks in a foreign language is probably more credible than the average native speaker.

Boaz Keysar, professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, and Yoella Bereby-Meyer, professor in psychology at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel, co-authored a recent paper in Topics in Cognitive Science that sheds new light on the role language plays in the natural impulse to lie.

In the research, native speakers of English, Spanish, Hebrew and Korean in four countries were invited to play a dice game in which they were paid according to the numbers they reported. Participants who used a foreign language were less likely to cheat than those using their native language, researchers found.

“When individuals have a chance to profit from dishonesty with no risk of being caught, their instinctive tendency is to cheat, while they refrain from cheating when they have time to deliberate,” Bereby-Meyer said. Such opportunities often occur in everyday situations, such as lying about a child’s age to get a cheaper ticket price, or not speaking up when you receive too much change. “There is a natural temptation to lie in these situations,” she added.

Roll of the dice

Working with groups in Spain, the United States, Israel and the Netherlands, researchers randomly assigned participants to perform the game in their native language or in a foreign language. They were paid according to the numbers they reported, and because the outcome was private, participants could cheat to inflate their profit without risk of repercussions.

Even though the game itself only involves reading numbers on a dice, all of the interaction was in the designated language and participants clicked on ‘number words’ on the screen, Bereby-Meyer said. “The die paradigm was a natural way to examine language’s effect on honesty.”

Even though the participants’ responses were private, the higher proportion of 5s or 6s selected by native language users showed that participants had a greater tendency to inflate their numbers when working in their native language.

“Even though there wasn’t much language involved, just being in a foreign language mindset made them more likely to resist temptation,” said Sayuri Hayakawa, a UChicago graduate student who was in charge of the UChicago part of the project.

Check your bias

Keysar and Bereby-Meyer argue that the findings challenge theories of ethical behavior to account for the role of the language in shaping ethical behavior. They believe the outcome is due to the fact that using a foreign language is less intuitive, so the automatic response systems that might give rise to cheating may be disengaged. “There is less temptation, so it becomes easier to refrain from impulsive behavior,” Bereby-Meyer said.

The study also provides a compelling narrative about inherent biases toward foreigners. “Studies have shown people with accents are perceived as less credible because they can be more difficult to understand,” Keysar said. These results suggest the opposite may be true.

Keysar believes this research has important implications, particularly in global business, in which companies work with foreign suppliers and customers on a daily basis. Even though a person’s gut instinct may be to trust these people less, the data show that if they are using a foreign language, they might be more honest.

Bereby-Meyer and Keysar plan to continue their work together in a new study exploring how language affects trust. The most recent study was done in collaboration with Shaul Shalvi from the University of Amsterdam, Albert Costa and Joanna Corey from the Universitat Pompeu Fabra and Sayuri Hayakawa from the University of Chicago.


Power Causes Brain Damage


By Wordwide FX Financial Translations

Via The Atlantic

By Jerry Useem

If power were a prescription drug, it would come with a long list of known side effects. It can intoxicate. It can corrupt. It can even make Henry Kissinger believe that he’s sexually magnetic. But can it cause brain damage?

When various lawmakers lit into John Stumpf at a congressional hearing last fall, each seemed to find a fresh way to flay the now-former CEO of Wells Fargo for failing to stop some 5,000 employees from setting up phony accounts for customers. But it was Stumpf’s performance that stood out. Here was a man who had risen to the top of the world’s most valuable bank, yet he seemed utterly unable to read a room. Although he apologized, he didn’t appear chastened or remorseful. Nor did he seem defiant or smug or even insincere. He looked disoriented, like a jet-lagged space traveler just arrived from Planet Stumpf, where deference to him is a natural law and 5,000 a commendably small number. Even the most direct barbs—“You have got to be kidding me” (Sean Duffy of Wisconsin); “I can’t believe some of what I’m hearing here” (Gregory Meeks of New York)—failed to shake him awake.

What was going through Stumpf’s head? New research suggests that the better question may be: What wasn’t going through it?

The historian Henry Adams was being metaphorical, not medical, when he described power as “a sort of tumor that ends by killing the victim’s sympathies.” But that’s not far from where Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at UC Berkeley, ended up after years of lab and field experiments. Subjects under the influence of power, he found in studies spanning two decades, acted as if they had suffered a traumatic brain injury—becoming more impulsive, less risk-aware, and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view.


Sukhvinder Obhi, a neuroscientist at McMaster University, in Ontario, recently described something similar. Unlike Keltner, who studies behaviors, Obhi studies brains. And when he put the heads of the powerful and the not-so-powerful under a transcranial-magnetic-stimulation machine, he found that power, in fact, impairs a specific neural process, “mirroring,” that may be a cornerstone of empathy. Which gives a neurological basis to what Keltner has termed the “power paradox”: Once we have power, we lose some of the capacities we needed to gain it in the first place.

That loss in capacity has been demonstrated in various creative ways. A 2006 study asked participants to draw the letter E on their forehead for others to view—a task that requires seeing yourself from an observer’s vantage point. Those feeling powerful were three times more likely to draw the E the right way to themselves—and backwards to everyone else (which calls to mind George W. Bush, who memorably held up the American flag backwards at the 2008 Olympics). Other experiments have shown that powerful people do worse at identifying what someone in a picture is feeling, or guessing how a colleague might interpret a remark.

The fact that people tend to mimic the expressions and body language of their superiors can aggravate this problem: Subordinates provide few reliable cues to the powerful. But more important, Keltner says, is the fact that the powerful stop mimicking others. Laughing when others laugh or tensing when others tense does more than ingratiate. It helps trigger the same feelings those others are experiencing and provides a window into where they are coming from. Powerful people “stop simulating the experience of others,” Keltner says, which leads to what he calls an “empathy deficit.”

Mirroring is a subtler kind of mimicry that goes on entirely within our heads, and without our awareness. When we watch someone perform an action, the part of the brain we would use to do that same thing lights up in sympathetic response. It might be best understood as vicarious experience. It’s what Obhi and his team were trying to activate when they had their subjects watch a video of someone’s hand squeezing a rubber ball.

For nonpowerful participants, mirroring worked fine: The neural pathways they would use to squeeze the ball themselves fired strongly. But the powerful group’s? Less so.

Was the mirroring response broken? More like anesthetized. None of the participants possessed permanent power. They were college students who had been “primed” to feel potent by recounting an experience in which they had been in charge. The anesthetic would presumably wear off when the feeling did—their brains weren’t structurally damaged after an afternoon in the lab. But if the effect had been long-lasting—say, by dint of having Wall Street analysts whispering their greatness quarter after quarter, board members offering them extra helpings of pay, and Forbes praising them for “doing well while doing good”—they may have what in medicine is known as “functional” changes to the brain.

I wondered whether the powerful might simply stop trying to put themselves in others’ shoes, without losing the ability to do so. As it happened, Obhi ran a subsequent study that may help answer that question. This time, subjects were told what mirroring was and asked to make a conscious effort to increase or decrease their response. “Our results,” he and his co-author, Katherine Naish, wrote, “showed no difference.” Effort didn’t help.

This is a depressing finding. Knowledge is supposed to be power. But what good is knowing that power deprives you of knowledge?

The sunniest possible spin, it seems, is that these changes are only sometimes harmful. Power, the research says, primes our brain to screen out peripheral information. In most situations, this provides a helpful efficiency boost. In social ones, it has the unfortunate side effect of making us more obtuse. Even that is not necessarily bad for the prospects of the powerful, or the groups they lead. As Susan Fiske, a Princeton psychology professor, has persuasively argued, power lessens the need for a nuanced read of people, since it gives us command of resources we once had to cajole from others. But of course, in a modern organization, the maintenance of that command relies on some level of organizational support. And the sheer number of examples of executive hubris that bristle from the headlines suggests that many leaders cross the line into counterproductive folly.

Less able to make out people’s individuating traits, they rely more heavily on stereotype. And the less they’re able to see, other research suggests, the more they rely on a personal “vision” for navigation. John Stumpf saw a Wells Fargo where every customer had eight separate accounts. (As he’d often noted to employees, eight rhymes with great.) “Cross-selling,” he told Congress, “is shorthand for deepening relationships.”

Is there nothing to be done?

No and yes. It’s difficult to stop power’s tendency to affect your brain. What’s easier—from time to time, at least—is to stop feeling powerful.

Insofar as it affects the way we think, power, Keltner reminded me, is not a post or a position but a mental state. Recount a time you did not feel powerful, his experiments suggest, and your brain can commune with reality.

Recalling an early experience of powerlessness seems to work for some people—and experiences that were searing enough may provide a sort of permanent protection. An incredible study published in The Journal of Finance last February found that CEOs who as children had lived through a natural disaster that produced significant fatalities were much less risk-seeking than CEOs who hadn’t. (The one problem, says Raghavendra Rau, a co-author of the study and a Cambridge University professor, is that CEOs who had lived through disasters without significant fatalities were more risk-seeking.)

But tornadoes, volcanoes, and tsunamis aren’t the only hubris-restraining forces out there. PepsiCo CEO and Chairman Indra Nooyi sometimes tells the story of the day she got the news of her appointment to the company’s board, in 2001. She arrived home percolating in her own sense of importance and vitality, when her mother asked whether, before she delivered her “great news,” she would go out and get some milk. Fuming, Nooyi went out and got it. “Leave that damn crown in the garage” was her mother’s advice when she returned.

The point of the story, really, is that Nooyi tells it. It serves as a useful reminder about ordinary obligation and the need to stay grounded. Nooyi’s mother, in the story, serves as a “toe holder,” a term once used by the political adviser Louis Howe to describe his relationship with the four-term President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom Howe never stopped calling Franklin.

For Winston Churchill, the person who filled that role was his wife, Clementine, who had the courage to write, “My Darling Winston. I must confess that I have noticed a deterioration in your manner; & you are not as kind as you used to be.” Written on the day Hitler entered Paris, torn up, then sent anyway, the letter was not a complaint but an alert: Someone had confided to her, she wrote, that Churchill had been acting “so contemptuous” toward subordinates in meetings that “no ideas, good or bad, will be forthcoming”—with the attendant danger that “you won’t get the best results.”

Lord David Owen—a British neurologist turned parliamentarian who served as the foreign secretary before becoming a baron—recounts both Howe’s story and Clementine Churchill’s in his 2008 book, In Sickness and in Power, an inquiry into the various maladies that had affected the performance of British prime ministers and American presidents since 1900. While some suffered from strokes (Woodrow Wilson), substance abuse (Anthony Eden), or possibly bipolar disorder (Lyndon B. Johnson, Theodore Roosevelt), at least four others acquired a disorder that the medical literature doesn’t recognize but, Owen argues, should.

“Hubris syndrome,” as he and a co-author, Jonathan Davidson, defined it in a 2009 article published in Brain, “is a disorder of the possession of power, particularly power which has been associated with overwhelming success, held for a period of years and with minimal constraint on the leader.” Its 14 clinical features include: manifest contempt for others, loss of contact with reality, restless or reckless actions, and displays of incompetence. In May, the Royal Society of Medicine co-hosted a conference of the Daedalus Trust—an organization that Owen founded for the study and prevention of hubris.

I asked Owen, who admits to a healthy predisposition to hubris himself, whether anything helps keep him tethered to reality, something that other truly powerful figures might emulate. He shared a few strategies: thinking back on hubris-dispelling episodes from his past; watching documentaries about ordinary people; making a habit of reading constituents’ letters.

But I surmised that the greatest check on Owen’s hubris today might stem from his recent research endeavors. Businesses, he complained to me, had shown next to no appetite for research on hubris. Business schools were not much better. The undercurrent of frustration in his voice attested to a certain powerlessness. Whatever the salutary effect on Owen, it suggests that a malady seen too commonly in boardrooms and executive suites is unlikely to soon find a cure.


Language is in the genes


By Wordwide FX Financial Translations

Via Max-Planck Gesellschaft 

By Prof. Dr. Simon E. Fisher. Max-Planck Institute for Psycholonguistics  , Nijmegen, Netherlands

It is accepted as a scientific fact that the prerequisite for the unique human aptitude for language and speech must be in the DNA of Homo sapiens. Yet a single “language gene” does not exist. Researchers in the Language and Genetics Department at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen are getting to the bottom of the genetic traces of the human ability to communicate.

Are you still studying this one gene? Shouldn't you be finished with it by now?” Every now and then, Simon Fisher encounters this puzzled enquiry from his parents. When telling this story, the Max Planck Director and Head of the Language and Genetics Department at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen has to laugh. To him, it’s obvious that he’s a long way from letting go of this gene, even 15 years after his great coup. After all, the secret behind FOXP2, the gene that the media described as “the language gene” in 2001, is still far from being resolved –- just like the genetic background to the unique human talent for communication. “We can be sure that the basis for language and speech lies partly in the genome”, says Fisher. “But it was clear from the outset that a single gene cannot explain this outstanding ability.”

But let’s start at the beginning. In the 1990s, Simon Fisher, who was then still at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics at Oxford University, worked with his colleagues to examine the genetic material of a unique British family. The so called “KE family” came to the attention of the scientific community when it was noted that many members, across several generations, suffered from serious speech impairments. The affected individuals experienced difficulties in clearly articulating certain sounds, but also had problems with many aspects of language, including sentence construction and grammar, although their overall intelligence seemed normal.

Following years of meticulous and detailed work, Fisher and his colleagues managed to genetically narrow down the family's problem. “This was before the first Human Genome had been fully sequenced, when the search for the genetic causes of certain phenomena was still very time- and labour-intensive”, says the Max Planck researcher. Finally, they found the problematic area in the genome: they discovered that a single letter of DNA is modified in one gene – FOXP2 – in those affected by this speech disorder. This leads to modification of an amino acid building block in the protein that the FOXP2 gene makes, damaging the way it works and disrupting the language development of the people who carry it.

However, FOXP2 is not a uniquely human gene. It is widely distributed among vertebrates, for example it can be found in non-human primates, rodents, birds, and even in reptiles and fish. And it is most active in comparable regions of the brain in many different animals. In-depth studies on various species suggest that the gene has important roles to play in the networking of brain cells, i.e. in how they connect up with each other and how these connections change during learning. Songbirds, for example, need FOXP2 to be able to learn to sing – in a sense, they need it to be able to communicate. Mice, on the other hand, need the gene when they learn to make sequences of movements.

Moreover, FOXP2 is highly conserved, meaning that the gene makes a very similar protein in species that are distantly related. This indicates that it must be an ancient gene. For instance, humans and mice differ only in three amino acids. Interestingly, Svante Pääbo at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, working in cooperation with Fisher in 2002, discovered that two of these amino acid differences happened in human evolution after our lineage separated from that of chimpanzees. Subsequent work by Pääbo's team showed that Neanderthal FOXP2 made an identical protein to that found in the modern human. This is in line with a growing appreciation that – contrary to earlier assumptions – our extinct cousins may have already had some speech abilities. Perhaps one of the crucial genetic foundation stones for language and speech was laid early in evolutionary history: after the separation of humans from chimpanzees but before the emergence of Neanderthals, thus at least 300,000 to 400,000 years ago.

Speech and language impairments cannot be traced back to one single modified gene

But is the key to our unique ability to communicate actually present in the human version of FOXP2? Presumably not – at least not only there. There are countless individuals who have difficulties with speech and language whose FOXP2 gene in their genetic make-up is faultless. As Fisher's more recent work with new DNA sequencing techniques shows, this can sometimes be due to damage to a gene other than FOXP2. However, in most cases, the issue is so complex that it cannot be traced back to only a single modified gene. That applies even more to the diversity of speech and language abilities in the general population.

“We can view this diversity as a multifactorial phenomenon, similar to body size, blood pressure or weight”, says Fisher. This means that an entire array of genes determine how well an individual can speak – in the same way that numerous genes affect how tall or heavy an individual is or how susceptible a person is to having high or low blood pressure. Individual genes therefore do not necessarily need to be mutated. In fact, the issue centres on polymorphisms, as they are known: variants in the genome, which often affect only one single DNA letter and which are widely distributed in the population. A single polymorphism usually doesn’t have a major effect by itself. Instead, several of them act together and lead to some people growing very tall, for example, while others remain small.

A very similar principle can be envisaged when it comes to language - as here, too, there is variation from one person to another. Some people are particularly eloquent or find it easy to learn other languages, while others find it difficult to articulate clearly or can only formulate and understand simple sentences. Of course, there are environmental factors influencing individual speech and language abilities. ”But we know that variation in language skills is also highly heritable, meaning that it is strongly influenced by genetic make-up”, explains Fisher. ”"In contrast to our colleagues who study size, weight or blood pressure, we face a very specific challenge. We are dealing with phenomena that aren't easily measurable.” While anyone who has a folding rule can take his or her physical measurements, the gradations between “good speech” and “poor speech” can be difficult to define. In addition, because the effects of polymorphisms are small, scientists need to measure their traits of interest in very large cohorts of people, preferably thousands of individuals.

“This means that we could indeed hunt for polymorphisms in the genome, something that is very easy to do with modern molecular biology methods”, says Fisher. “But we can’t yet reliably interpret their effects on language.” With this in mind, the scientist is currently working with colleagues from other Departments at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics to more clearly define the various skills that underlie aspects of speech and language and make them easier to measure in a standardised way, for example by using online or app-based testing. This could one day lead to a better understanding of the many small effects of various gene variants on language and speech.

Thus, it’s not a matter of finding “the” language gene but of decoding the genetic and neurobiological networks underlying speech and language. Polymorphisms have a role to play here. They are, as it were, the tiny adjusting screws that determine the fine-tuning of linguistic ability. But there are also key areas in each network that determine whether the interaction works in principle or whether individual areas, or even the entire network, are malfunctioning. And that is ultimately leading Fisher and his colleagues at the Max Planck Institute in Nijmegen back to FOXP2.

Orchestra of language and speech

As is now known, FOXP2 is a “transcription factor”. As such, it regulates the activity of up to 1,000 genes. This can be imagined as an orchestra in which the conductor controls the interaction and thus combines the cacophony of chaotically blaring instruments into the harmonious melodiousness of a collective piece of music. And it is clear that in the FOXP2 orchestra there are some musicians who are more connected to language and speech than others – at least in humans.

Fisher and his team have therefore applied themselves to trawling the extensive network of genes coordinated by FOXP2 to search for those that are most relevant to speech and language, and study their functions in the brain. For instance, in their earliest forays into this area they already struck it lucky: with a gene known as CNTNAP2, which is switched off directly by FOXP2. Defects in this gene correlate with speech problems and autism. And, CNTNAP2 is particularly active during the development of the brain and affects neural connections, especially in the neural networks that play a role in language and speech.

In the meantime, the researchers in the Department of Language and Genetics have their eyes on even more interesting candidate genes. But once again, it is clear: until the extensive network that is coordinated by FOXP2 in its role as orchestra conductor is grasped and understood, a great deal of work remains to be done. It is therefore very likely that the gene that Fisher has been researching for more than 15 years will continue to occupy his attention for a long time to come.


Bilingualism as a Life Experience


By Wordwide FX Financial Translations


Via Usuable Knowledge


What do we know about bilingualism? Much of what we once thought we knew — that speaking two languages is confusing for children, that it poses cognitive challenges best avoided — is now known to be inaccurate. Today, bilingualism is often seen as a brain-sharpening benefit, a condition that can protect and preserve cognitive function well into old age. 

Indeed, the very notion of bilingualism is changing; language mastery is no longer seen as an either/or proposition, even though most schools still measure English proficiency as a binary “pass or fail” marker.

It turns out that there are many ways to be bilingual, according to HGSE Associate Professor Gigi Luk, who studies the lasting cognitive consequences of speaking multiple languages. “Bilingualism is a complex and multifaceted life experience,” she says; it’s an “interactional experience” that happens within — and in response to — a broader social context.

Usable Knowledge spoke with Luk about her research and its applications.


As bilingual children toggle between two languages, they use cognitive resources beyond those required for simple language acquisition, Luk writes in a forthcoming edition of the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Child Development. Recent research has shown that bilingual children outperform monolingual children on tasks that tap into executive function — skills having to do with attention control, reasoning, and flexible problem solving.

Their strength in those tasks likely results from coping with and overcoming the demand of managing two languages. In a bilingual environment, children learn to recognize meaningful speech sounds that belong to two different languages but share similar concepts.

In a paper published earlier this year, she and her colleagues looked at how bilingualism affects verbal fluency — efficiency at retrieving words — in various stages of childhood and adulthood. In one measure of verbal acumen called letter fluency — the ability to list words that begin with the letter F, for instance — bilinguals enjoyed an advantage over monolinguals that began at age 10 and grew robust in adulthood. 


Luk and her researchers are looking at the neuroscience of bilingualism — at how bilingualism may affect the physical structure of the brain in its different regions.   

What they’ve found so far shows that older adults who are lifelong bilinguals have more white matter in their frontal lobes (important to executive function) than monolinguals, and that their temporal lobes (important to language function) are better preserved. The results support other evidence that persistent bilingual experience shapes brain functions and structures.

A growing body of evidence suggests that lifelong bilingualism is associated with the delayed diagnosis of dementia. But the impact of language experience on brain activity is not well understood, Luk says.

In a 2015 paper, she and her colleagues began to look at functional brain networks in monolingual and bilingual older adults. Their findings support the idea that a language experience begun in childhood and continued throughout adulthood influences brain networks in ways that may provide benefits far later in life.


Monolingualism and bilingualism are not static categories, Luk says, so the question of what it means to be bilingual, and who is bilingual, is nuanced. There are several pathways to bilingualism. A child can become bilingual when parents and caregivers speak both languages frequently, either switching between the two. A child can be bilingual when the language spoken at home differs from a community’s dominant language, which the child is exposed to in schools. Or a child can become bilingual when he or she speaks the community’s dominant language at home but attends an immersion program at school.  

Bilingualism is an experience that accumulates and changes over time, in response to a child’s learning environments, says Luk.


In one of her projects, Luk works with a group of ELL directors to help them understand the diverse needs of their language learners and to find better ways to engage their parents. She’s looking at effective ways to measure bilingualism in schools; at connections between the science of bilingualism and language and literacy outcomes; and at the long-term relationship between academic outcomes and the quality and quantity of bilingual experience in young children.

Part of her goal is to help schools move beyond binary categorizations like “ELL” and “English proficient” and to recognize that language diversity brings challenges but also long-term benefits.

“If we only look at ELL or English proficient, that’s not a representation of the whole spectrum of bilingualism,” she says. “To embrace bilingualism, rather than simply recognizing this phenomenon, we need to consider both the challenges and strengths of children with diverse language backgrounds. We cannot do this by only looking at English proficiency. Other information, such as home language background, will enrich our understanding of bilingual development and learning.” 


How Morality Changes in a Foreign Language


By Wordwide FX Financial Translations

Have you ever had a relationship in a language other than your native language? If yes, was/is it easier for you to say nice -or not so nice- words? Do insults or swear-words sound too aggressive to you when uttered in a foreign language, or much less so? Or, conversely, do words of love sound less sincere? Does the word "love" itself sound less? In short, do words in a foreign language "mean" less to a non-native brain? Do you feel less committed to saying these words because they mean less to you?

Although this article I found on Scientific American does not address these specific questions directly, it does analyze the way in which people having relationships of all kinds in a language that is not their own "feel" that words have a different sense of morality. It'd be nice to hear your thoughts on that!

Via Scientific American. How Morality Changes in a Foreign Language

Fascinating ethical shifts come with thinking in a different language

What defines who we are? Our habits? Our aesthetic tastes? Our memories? If pressed, I would answer that if there is any part of me that sits at my core, that is an essential part of who I am, then surely it must be my moral center, my deep-seated sense of right and wrong.

And yet, like many other people who speak more than one language, I often have the sense that I’m a slightly different person in each of my languages—more assertive in English, more relaxed in French, more sentimental in Czech. Is it possible that, along with these differences, my moral compass also points in somewhat different directions depending on the language I’m using at the time?

Psychologists who study moral judgments have become very interested in this question. Several recent studies have focused on how people think about ethics in a non-native language—as might take place, for example, among a group of delegates at the United Nations using a lingua franca to hash out a resolution. The findings suggest that when people are confronted with moral dilemmas, they do indeed respond differently when considering them in a foreign language than when using their native tongue.

In a 2014 paper led by Albert Costa, volunteers were presented with a moral dilemma known as the “trolley problem”: imagine that a runaway trolley is careening toward a group of five people standing on the tracks, unable to move. You are next to a switch that can shift the trolley to a different set of tracks, thereby sparing the five people, but resulting in the death of one who is standing on the side tracks. Do you pull the switch?

Most people agree that they would. But what if the only way to stop the trolley is by pushing a large stranger off a footbridge into its path? People tend to be very reluctant to say they would do this, even though in both scenarios, one person is sacrificed to save five. But Costa and his colleagues found that posing the dilemma in a language that volunteers had learned as a foreign tongue dramatically increased their stated willingness to shove the sacrificial person off the footbridge, from fewer than 20% of respondents working in their native language to about 50% of those using the foreign one. (Both native Spanish- and English-speakers were included, with English and Spanish as their respective foreign languages; the results were the same for both groups, showing that the effect was about using a foreign language, and not about which particular language—English or Spanish—was used.)

Using a very different experimental setup, Janet Geipel and her colleagues also found that using a foreign language shifted their participants’ moral verdicts. In their study, volunteers read descriptions of acts that appeared to harm no one, but that many people find morally reprehensible—for example, stories in which siblings enjoyed entirely consensual and safe sex, or someone cooked and ate his dog after it had been killed by a car. Those who read the stories in a foreign language (either English or Italian) judged these actions to be less wrong than those who read them in their native tongue.

Why does it matter whether we judge morality in our native language or a foreign one? According to one explanation, such judgments involve two separate and competing modes of thinking—one of these, a quick, gut-level “feeling,” and the other, careful deliberation about the greatest good for the greatest number. When we use a foreign language, we unconsciously sink into the more deliberate mode simply because the effort of operating in our non-native language cues our cognitive system to prepare for strenuous activity. This may seem paradoxical, but is in line with findings that reading math problems in a hard-to-read font makes people less likely to make careless mistakes (although these results have proven difficult to replicate).

An alternative explanation is that differences arise between native and foreign tongues because our childhood languages vibrate with greater emotional intensity than do those learned in more academic settings. As a result, moral judgments made in a foreign language are less laden with the emotional reactions that surface when we use a language learned in childhood.

There’s strong evidence that memory intertwines a language with the experiences and interactions through which that language was learned. For example, people who are bilingual are more likely to recall an experience if prompted in the language in which that event occurred. Our childhood languages, learned in the throes of passionate emotion—whose childhood, after all, is not streaked through with an abundance of love, rage, wonder, and punishment?—become infused with deep feeling. By comparison, languages acquired late in life, especially if they are learned through restrained interactions in the classroom or blandly delivered over computer screens and headphones, enter our minds bleached of the emotionality that is present for their native speakers.

Catherine Harris and her colleagues offer compelling evidence for the visceral responses that a native language can provoke. Using the skin’s electrical conductivity to measure emotional arousal (conductivity increases as adrenaline surges), they had native Turkish speakers who had learned English late in life listen to words and phrases in both languages; some of these were neutral (table) whereas others were taboo (shit) or conveyed reprimands (Shame on you!). Their participants’ skin responses revealed heightened arousal for taboo words compared to neutral ones, especially when these were spoken in their native Turkish. But the strongest difference between languages was evident with reprimands: the volunteers responded very mildly to the English phrases, but had powerful reactions to the Turkish ones, with some reporting that they “heard” these reprimands in the voices of close relatives. If language can serve as a container for potent memories of our earliest transgressions and punishments, then it is not surprising that such emotional associations might color moral judgments made in our native language.

The balance is tipped even further toward this explanation by a recent study published in the journal Cognition. This new research involved scenarios in which good intentions led to bad outcomes (someone gives a homeless person a new jacket, only to have the poor man beat up by others who believe he has stolen it) or good outcomes occurred despite dubious motives (a couple adopts a disabled child to receive money from the state). Reading these in a foreign language rather than a native language led participants to place greater weight on outcomes and less weight on intentions in making moral judgments. These results clash with the notion that using a foreign language makes people think more deeply, because other research has shown that careful reflection makes people think more about the intentions that underlie people’s actions rather than less.

But the results do mesh with the idea that when using a foreign language, muted emotional responses—less sympathy for those with noble intentions, less outrage for those with nefarious motives—diminished the impact of intentions. This explanation is bolstered by findings that patients with brain damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, an area that is involved in emotional responding, showed a similar pattern of responses, with outcomes privileged over intentions.

What then, is a multilingual person’s “true” moral self? Is it my moral memories, the reverberations of emotionally charged interactions that taught me what it means to be “good”? Or is it the reasoning I’m able to apply when free of such unconscious constraints? Or perhaps, this line of research simply illuminates what is true for all of us, regardless of how many languages we speak: that our moral compass is a combination of the earliest forces that have shaped us and the ways in which we escape them.