The ethics of using a foreign language

Door Marc van Oostendorp

While discussing online the odd claim currently going around in the Dutch press that we should be ‘against English’, and in particular the claim that ‘one becomes less ethical for speaking English’, somebody pointed me to this fairly recent paper by a group of economists. aiming to show just that: Rotterdam students, native speakers of Dutch, would be less willing to be generous and share in an experiment when they were speaking English than a similar group of students speaking Dutch.

Rational behaviour

I had essentially given up reading what economists sometimes deign to say about language after Keith Chen claimed to have proved that speaking a language without a future tense makes one adopt a healthy and frugal lifestyle, but obviously that is already quite a while ago and maybe the economists have learned something in the mean time – so decided to give it a try.

I am not sure I am very impressed. The article reports on an experiment conducted in 2012, at Rotterdam Business School. It shows that indeed the English speaking group tended to be less cooperative than the group speaking Dutch. (Note that this actually means that they would have internalized the teachings of classical economics better and behaved as rational, selfish agents, so whether or not to interpret this result as positive or negative itself already implies taking a political stance.) The authors claim that it is based on previous experiments purportedly showing that speaking foreign languages trigger more rational behaviour, given a certain definition of rationality.


I am not sure that this theoretical embedding really brings much to the paper itself, but more importantly, although the authors do not hesitate to draw firm conclusions in their findings, claiming that these have implications for universities and business schools implementing English language programmes.

It is unclear whether we really can draw such conclusions. For one thing, the paper does not discuss whether the students involved were in an English language programme or in a Dutch language programme, even though this would be rather relevant. As far as I have been able to find out, it is most likely that the programme was indeed in English (and in any case the literature would be). This would imply that the students may have somehow associated speaking English with fellow students with the classroom and with the teachings of Rotterdam Business School.


But if that is the case, we have no argument for teaching these students in Dutch at all. The only consequence would be that they would become more selfish when speaking Dutch. I am not saying that this is a logical concusion; but to me it seems to have the same level of plausability as the scenario presented by the researchers.

But if the researchers are right, it might be better to discuss the issue whether we should be against English in English, as it makes people more rational.

Foto: Steve, Flickr.