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Lying in another language


Lying in Another Language


 Paul, Language Trainers | JULY. 15, 2015, 5:30 PM


Are you good at telling when others are lying? Maybe they start speaking quickly, or stumble over their words, or avoid making eye contact. But what about their use of pronouns like “I” or “me”? Or the rise and fall of their voices? Indeed, studies have shown that the true signs that somebody is lying aren’t always what you would expect. And to further complicate the picture, lying isn’t the same in every language: people’s linguistic and emotional response to lying depends on both the language that they speak and whether or not they’re a native speaker of that language. Let’s take a look at how lying differs cross-linguistically.


Lying in English

Anecdotally, the tell-tale signs of lying are usually those of nervousness: a quivering voice, lack of eye contact, stuttering. But liars are not always nervous, and nervous people aren’t always lying. Therefore, the question remains whether there are detectable patterns in deceptive speech aside from common signs of nervousness.

A 2003 study from the United States examined the content (i.e., type and frequency of words selected) in deceptive versus truthful speech. That is, participants said true things about their experiences or attitudes, and later were asked to tell lies about similar subjects. Their lies were then deconstructed to see if there were any giveaways.

The researchers found three major patterns. First, the lies were less complex: people’s invented experiences went into less detail, and people’s untruthful opinions were based on simple arguments lacking nuance. Second, the lies used fewer first person pronouns: people said words like “I” and “me” less than when they were telling the truth, perhaps as a way to distance themselves from the untrue statement. Finally, they used more negative emotion words, such as “hate” and “enemy”.

In addition to the content of speech, research has shown that the quality of speech also changes when people lie. Specifically, English-speaking participants spoke with a higher pitch when they were lying than when they were telling the truth. This is in tune with other research which has shown that people speak with a higher pitch in high-emotion situations, such as describing violent pictures.


Lying in other languages

But what about lies in other languages? The vast majority of research about lying is in English. Can we assume that the same trends will be observed in other languages? There’s reason to doubt this: many Romance languages, for example, don’t require the use of first-person subject pronouns, so it’s unclear if we’d still observe the reduced use of “I” and “me” that was seen in the English-language experiments.

Based on the little research that exists on the subject, it seems that the linguistic content of deceptive speech does differ across languages. For example, when Mandarin Chinese speakers told lies online, there was no difference in the use of first-person pronouns; however, there was an increase in third-person pronouns. Similarly, a study conducted in the Netherlands found that Dutch speakers’ pronoun use did not differ in either truthful or deceptive speech. Therefore, we shouldn’t be quick to generalize about liars’ linguistic tendencies based on findings only in English.

Another recent study involving Italian speakers suggests that deceptive speech is distinct in different languages. Whereas English speakers use a higher pitch when telling lies, Italian speakers showed no difference in pitch when they were lying or telling the truth. However, Italian speakers did speak more slowly when they were lying, something that was not observed in English speakers.

The finding that Italian speakers were slower when lying is especially interesting given that languages vary in the speed at which they’re spoken, and Italian is one of the faster spoken languages. Perhaps this trend is related to the fact that English is spoken more slowly than Italian (six vs. seven syllables per second, respectively).


Lying in a second language

So, we’ve established that lying is different across languages: speakers of English, Mandarin Chinese, Dutch, and Italian show different tendencies when telling lies. Another interesting question that remains is related to the difference in lying between native and non-native speakers. Given the additional costs associated with producing speech in a language that’s not your mother tongue, what can we observe when non-native speakers tell lies?

A collaboration between universities in the United States and Turkey set out to discover just that. To do so, they had native Turkish speakers (who spoke English as their second language) tell lies, and measured their skin conductance – that is, the temperature of their skin. Skin conductance is a classic tool used to detect lies; polygraph tests often measure it as part of their method for determining whether or not somebody is telling the truth.

The participants had to tell lies in both English and Turkish. Curiously, the lies told in English elicited higher skin conductance than the lies told in Turkish. This was especially interesting, as subjects almost universally reported that they had a stronger emotional response to telling lies in Turkish. Why, then, was their response so much higher when telling English lies?

The authors suggest that it has to do with nervousness in producing speech from a language that isn’t your own. That is, Turkish speakers’ higher skin conductance was a result of their discomfort speaking English rather than a strong emotional reaction to lying. This has implications regarding whether or not polygraphs or similar lie detectors are useful when dealing with non-native speakers.

So the next time you believe you’ve caught someone in a lie, be a detective and think about more than their nervousness or avoidance of eye contact. Stop and analyze the situation: what language are you speaking? What’s their first language? How’s their speech rate? Their use of first-person pronouns? Alas, analyzing their pronoun use may be a bit too advanced for casual conversation, but it highlights the fact that there’s a lot more to deceptive speech that we have yet to discover – and that it’s something we should examine from multiple linguistic perspectives, instead of just English.


Readers: How do you tell when someone’s lying? Do you notice a change in your (or others’) speech when being deceptive? Let us know – leave a comment!


Paul writes on behalf of Language Trainers, a language tutoring service offering personalized course packages to individuals and groups. Check out their free language level tests and other resources on their website. Visit their Facebook page or contact with any questions.