Intolerance has many triggers and takes many forms, but it tends to boil down to in-group and out-group status. Most people favor “people like us.” (Whereas tolerance springs from an acceptance of equality in difference; Tzvetan Todorov’s formulation of this in The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other is a favorite of mine.)

What’s a bit surprising is how early the process starts, and the extent to which speech plays a fundamental role. Researchers at Harvard and the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales have found that young children favor speakers of their native language — and dialect — even before they themselves have learned to talk. According to the Web of Language, “When the researchers showed babies from English-speaking families videos of English- and Spanish-speaking adults, they found that infants who have yet to master ‘Mama’ and ‘Dada’ were already suspicious of people who said ‘Mami’ and ‘Papi.'”

No doubt this attitude contributes to the fervor of anti-immigrationists.

The researchers “hint that bilingual babies may be more accepting of diversity” and that “manipulating early language experience might actually help to reduce the social conflicts that emerge later on.”

I’m thinking of translators I’ve known. Are they more tolerant than others? Hmmm. I’m not sure, but I think as a group they were more or less like anyone else.


Research article: Spelke et al., “The Native Language of Social Cognition.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, July 24, 2007.Via: The Web of Language