People Are More Rational When Speaking in a Foreign Language

Photo: Kexino

In addition to helping you navigate an exotic city or impressing your friends at cocktail parties, researchers say that knowing a foreign language can also help with decision-making abilities.

SciAm gives a bit of context. First of all, speaking in a foreign language tends to feel less emotional than one’s mother tongue:

For many multilinguals, swearing in a foreign language doesn’t evoke the same anxiety (or bring the same emotional release) as using a native language. Decreased emotionality in a foreign language spans the gamut of emotions, from saying “I love you,” to hearing childhood reprimands, to uttering morally grave lies, or being influenced by persuasive messages in advertising.

The researchers, based at University of Chicago, sought to find whether bilinguals would be more analytical and less emotional when making decisions in a foreign language. Non-native participants in the U.S., France and Korea were all less influenced by emotion when reviewing a number of scenarios in their second language versus that of their mother tongue. They were also more keen to participate in bets in the foreign language than in their native speech.

Researchers have assumed that, as long as people are proficient enough, then how they respond will not be affected by the language they are using. It is now becoming better appreciated that people answer surveys differently depending on the language. For example, Chinese international students studying in North America agreed with traditional Chinese values more when answering a survey in Chinese; they had higher self-esteem scores when completing a self-esteem questionnaire in English. The full extent of these effects of languages on responses are still being investigated.

Thanks to these findings, psychologists are increasingly advising foreign nationals in the U.S. to seek therapy in their own language and to stick to their native tongue when it comes to discussing life-or-death decisions.

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