Black or White vs. Hello or Bonjour

Seems pretty obvious who the child’s future self would most likely be, right? Maybe not…

How do you categorize yourself amongst others? How do you differentiate “your” types of people versus outsiders with whom you might not see eye to eye? It might seem like a simple question, but the answers might vary more than you’d think.

For example, someone living in the deep south with a mostly homogeneous racial community might identify with race above all else. But someone else living amongst a mosaic of different colors and nationalities in southern Florida might feel more comfortable around those speaking the same language or having the same accent. Out in the streets of New York, you might identify with someone’s brand of clothing or the way they wear their hair more than anything else.

It may seem like a mute point, but these types of distinctions were quite important throughout the evolution of human society. Subtle cues – or not so subtle cues – about who to trust and who belonged to your own society were important to pick up on. Carelessly wandering into the hands of another Native American tribe and trusting them would likely lead to disaster in many regions of North America’s not-too-distant past.

It remains an open question which of these traits is learned as we grow up and which ones we rely on from birth. And a recent study from the University of Chicago holds some surprising results when it comes to language and race.

Any idiot knows that race is something inherited – and Michael Jackson not withstanding – not likely to ever change. Additionally, we all know that languages are learned and what one person speaks as a child might not be the only – or even the primary – language he or she speaks as an adult.

But these two things aren’t so obvious to children.

Katherine Kinzler of the University of Chicago investigated which of these two social markers is more dominant in children of different ages and different ethnicities. She showed an image of a child who spoke a certain language to the study’s subjects, and then showed them two pictures of adults that the child could grow up to become. One choice spoke the same language but was of a different ethnicity and the other spoke a different langue but was of the same ethnicity.

Naturally, the 8-10-year-old group identified race as being a trait not likely to change and picked the adult images based on that rather than language. However, this distinction was not so strong in 5-6 year olds. When given the same choices, they identified the adult speaking the same language as the most likely candidate for the initial child to become, even though it meant they’d have to change ethnicities. To the younger children, language was a more stable, inherent characteristic than race. Though this may seem ridiculous, for most of human history before planes, trains and automobiles, people were much more likely to come across someone speaking another language than someone of a different skin color.

There was, however, another interesting aspect to the study. While younger Caucasian children picked language over race, younger African-American children did not. They identified with race more than language at an earlier age.

The results open up a whole slew of interesting questions. Is language as a permanent characteristic something that is born into all children and then eventually discarded? Do adults gravitate towards similar languages more than other characteristics that aren’t as permanent as race? What differences in culture and upbringing caused the Caucasian children and African-American children to identify differently in the test?

What instincts we are born with and what instincts we are socially conditioned to learn as we grow is quite an interesting topic, when you really sit down and think about it.


About bigkingken

A science writer dedicated to proving that the Big Ten - or the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, if you will - is more than athletics.
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