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Can Studying Spanish Increase Your Empathy?

Authored By: 
Daniel Shabasson, Spanish Teacher

We feel more empathy towards people with whom we have something in common, and what more could you have in common with someone than a shared language?  Could learning a foreign language increase our empathy towards speakers of that language?  It’s certainly possible.  But I want to focus on a different question about language learning and empathy.  Can learning to use the indirect object—an important grammar structure in Spanish—increase our sensitivity to how our actions may affect others, thereby making us more empathetic? 

The indirect object is used frequently and expansively in Spanish. It is rare in English, where it is employed merely to state who receives an object.  For example, consider English sentences (1) and (2) below:

     (1) I gave him the ball.

     (2) I made him a sandwich. 

Here, the boldface word “him” is an indirect object pronoun in English.  “Him” tells you who received the ball or the sandwich.  The relation expressed by the indirect object with respect to the subject of the sentence, is giver/receiver.  In these sentences, “I” picks out the giver, and “him” the receiver.   This is the limit of the indirect object in English—to express the giver/receiver relation.

It is different in Spanish.  Far more relations can be expressed using the indirect object pronoun.  For example, in Spanish, to say a thief stole a man’s car, you would say:

     (3) The thief stole him the car. 

To say that the teacher took three points off a boy’s test, you would say:

     (4) The teacher deducted him 3 points from the test.  

These sentences are not well formed in English, of course, but I used these broken English sentences to reproduce the approximate way in which they would be said in Spanish.  In English, you do not use an indirect object pronoun in sentences such as (3) and (4), but you do in Spanish.  In Spanish the indirect object refers to the person who is affected in the contextually salient way by the action described in the sentence.  In (3), “him” expresses victimhood, and the relation expressed between the subject of the sentence and “him” is thief/victim.  In (4), “him” expresses the condition of being a test-taker, and the relation between the subject of the sentence and him is grader/test-taker.  There is practically no limit to the nature of the relations that the indirect object pronoun can express, and the precise nature of the relation is largely a function of the specific sentence being expressed.  In learning how to use indirect objects in Spanish, the learner of Spanish must consider who is carrying out the action, which party is affected by the action, and how they are affected.  

In short, learning Spanish forces you to consider who your actions can affect and how they are affected. Perhaps reflecting on this relation raises our awareness and sensitivity with respect to how our own actions affect the people around us, thereby raising our level of empathy for others. 

This is just a hypothesis, of course.  The extent to which our ways of thinking about the world change our ways of feeling about the world is an issue that needs to be studied by psychology and cognitive science.  Still, I think it is clear that in learning the indirect object in Spanish, we are forced to reflect on how people are affected by actions.  This should help us to understand, at least in an intellectual way, how we people can be affected by our action.  Could this experience sharpen our intuitions with respect to the appropriate way treat others—within the political sphere, in our personal relationships, and elsewhere? I sure hope so.