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Language Heightens the Political Salience of Ethnic Divisions

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 November 2018

Efrén O. Pérez
Department of Political Science and Psychology, University of California, Los Angeles, 4289 Bunche Hall, Los Angeles, CA 90095, USA e-mail:
Margit Tavits
Department of Political Science, Washington University in St. Louis, One Brookings Dr., Campus Box 1063, St. Louis, MO 63130, USA e-mail:


What makes people take ethnic divisions into account when judging politics? We consider here the possible effect of language. We hypothesize that speaking a minority tongue primes ethnic divisions, leading people to interpret politics more heavily through this prism. In two survey experiments with bilingual adults, we demonstrate that subjects assigned to interview in a minority language are indeed more likely to evaluate politics based on ethnic considerations: they rank ethnic relations as a more important political issue and they are more likely to correctly identify the anti-minority party in their political system. These results suggest that people may think about politics differently depending on the language they use.

Research Article
Copyright © The Experimental Research Section of the American Political Science Association 2018 

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Support for this research was provided by the Weidenbaum Center on the Economy, Government, and Public Policy, and Center for New Institutional Social Science. The data, code, and any additional materials required to replicate all analyses in this article are available at the Journal of Experimental Political Science Dataverse within the Harvard Dataverse Network, at doi:10.7910/DVN/0XSLQX. We thank Kristin Michelitch and Amanda Lea Robinson for helpful comments on previous drafts of this paper. Neither author declares any conflicts of interest.


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