More than just a language barrier? Thoughts on culture and language.

As you go on your Lexes and meet different people from different countries to your own, it would be surprising if you weren’t struck by some of the ways in which they are different to you. Perhaps their customs are different, perhaps their traditions are different, perhaps they behave differently to you, as you get to know each other. Cultural differences that affect the way someone acts are to be expected, but how about if their outlook on life is different, or if they treat people differently? Is this to be expected? Recent scientific data suggests that a person’s nationality subtly affects the way they think and see other people, so perhaps there’s more than just a language barrier on your Lexes.

A 2014 study, the ‘Moral Machine Experiment’ looks at the moral dilemma of self-driving cars, and how people’s moral judgements differ based on their nationality. If you’re in a car driving quickly and about to crash, and there is no possibility of saving everyone, who should you save, at the cost of someone else. Of course in reality people rarely have time in times like these to make split second decisions, but self-driving cars can be programmed ahead of time to ‘do the right thing’ in any given scenario. Do you drive into a pedestrian and save yourself, or do you save the pedestrian and crash? What if it’s a child, or if you have passengers in your car? Whilst it is generally accepted that, all else being equal, you should save the maximum number of human lives, what the ‘right’ thing to do becomes increasingly more confusing and difficult to find. It also differs from country to country.

In many ways, this is similar to the classic ethical dilemma ‘the trolley problem’: if a trolley is going down a track where it will kill five people, is it right to change the trolley’s direction onto a different track, where it will only kill one person? However in this example, you (in the self-driving car) and your fellow passengers are on one of the tracks, and the other track could have anything and anyone. Importantly, and this is what makes this study particularly important, you cannot make the decision yourself (and direct the car a certain way).

One of the biggest challenges here is that there really is no 'right' response in any given scenario. Do you favour the young over the elderly? Do you favour a pregnant woman over a man? A key worker over someone else? Someone illegally jaywalking over law-abiding pedestrians? And is it even right to try and find the right thing, or is inaction and proceeding on its current course in fact best? To solve this in a universally accepted and impartial way, the researchers decided to find the consensus on these decisions. Even if a 'morally right' answer cannot always be found, a country's most likely and most popular answer can be. As such, the study collected almost 40 million moral decisions (for these exact situations) from participants in 233 countries and territories, in order to reach a common consensus for every decision in every country.

The results differ in all kinds of ways. Firstly, the study broke decisions up into six categories, separating people and animals in terms of fitness, age, number, social status, gender and species. A common answer was that humans should always be saved over other animals. Another was that you should generally save the larger number of people, but this was often dependent on other things. Interestingly, however, there were also lots of country-specific results. The French are the most likely to save a woman over a man. The Germans do not take age into account, whereas most countries prefer to save the young. And in Central and South America, there is a much higher preference to save people with a higher social status. This just a brief overview to show some of the differences, but you can find more on the article itself.

So as you continue to learn your language, and go on Lexes with people from other countries and other cultures, consider how they might see the world differently to yourself. Ask them about their culture and what’s important in their culture and compare it to your own. After all, there is no ‘right’ way of looking at the world, and people from different countries do it differently.

More than just a language barrier? Thoughts on culture and language.



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