Last night I was on the phone with a friend, talking about food. She is a Francophile and a gourmande, for sure, but she said she cannot stand liver.
“Really?” I said. “Don’t you like pâté?”
“No,” she said. “I can’t eat pâté.”
“But I love pâté!” I said.
In fact, I remember the first time I tried pâté. It was the autumn of 1988, and I was living in Washington, DC, on a college internship. I tasted pâté at somebody’s dinner party, smearing it on a cracker without thinking too much about it. I knew I was eating what they call “pâté,” and that I didn’t want to think too much about what it was. It was one of the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten, and I’ve been a big fan ever since.
Now, if someone had said, “Would you like a smear of liver paste on your cracker?” I would have gagged. But pâté — that’s different. Similarly, last year in France, having dinner with James C. and another friend, I ordered tête de veau, which I perfectly well knew is French for “calf’s head.” It’s made by boiling a calf’s head until the meat attached to it comes off. It’s a beloved French dish, and I wanted to know what it tasted like. Somehow, calling it by its French name made it possible for me to order it; had it been called “boiled calf’s head,” there’s no way in the world I would have tried it, even though I knew precisely that’s what it was. (What I didn’t realize until looking it up just now was that tête de veau, also includes pieces of the boiled tongue and brains of the calf. Had I known at the time, I would not have been so adventurous.)
On an earlier trip to France, I tasted what is called fromage de tête, which means, literally, “head cheese.” It’s a kind of terrine made from the boiled meat of a calf’s or pig’s head. It was perfectly delicious. I understood at the time that I was eating the French version of what country people back home call “hogshead cheese” — something I couldn’t stomach back home because the words made me gag at the thought of it. Even stranger, back home in Louisiana, my father offered me a taste of some head cheese someone had brought him from a country store on the outskirts of Baton Rouge. Inwardly I told myself that this was nothing more than fromage de tête, and that was enough for me to choke it down. But I ate no more than a couple of bites, to be polite. Mind you, it tasted delicious, but the thought that I was eating hogshead cheese was repulsive.
It works in the opposite way too. In my book The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, I tell a story about how I cooked a bouillabaisse once for my Louisiana family, which they refused to eat, or even to taste. This French fish stew had no strange ingredients at all, all familiar ingredients (fish, tomatoes, onions, potatoes, garlic, etc.). But the French name scared them. In fact, it wasn’t even the use of the French language. It is very close to what Cajuns call courtbouillion (not the same thing as the French version). If I had called it a fish courtbouillion, they would have eaten it without any complaint, and likely enjoyed it very much. Even though my family is not Cajun, everybody in south Louisiana knows and like courtbouillion. But it had a French name they had never heard, and it made them revolt inwardly at the idea of tasting it. It hurt my feelings terribly, but as my own experience with boiled calf’s head and head cheese shows, these things are hard to bring under the rule of reason.
How to account for this phenomenon? Or this facet of it: people who would not curse in their own language find it much easier to do so in a foreign tongue. In high school, I walked around with a button (one of many; it was a fad back then) that said Mange merde et morte — a foul imprecation, but rendered largely inert because of the language difference. I never would have had the gall to wear a button in English that said the same thing, and probably would have been disciplined by the school had I done so.
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.
Read the whole thing. The writer ends by asking: when a person speaks more than one language, what is their true moral self? The answer is probably the language in which they had their early emotional experiences.