On Second Thought: Your Second-Language Decisions May Be Better

If you learn a second language, there’s evidence that thinking in that language leads to better decisions. Citing research from the University of Chicago, Tom Jacobs reports in Pacific Standard that “using one’s second language reduces or eliminates certain biases that otherwise infiltrate our decision-making.”

In the abstract to their article in Psychological Science, the researchers state that one would assume

that the difficulty of using a foreign language would make decisions less systematic. We discovered, however, that the opposite is true: Using a foreign language reduces decision-making biases. Four experiments show that the framing effect disappears when choices are presented in a foreign tongue. Whereas people were risk averse for gains and risk seeking for losses when choices were presented in their native tongue, they were not influenced by this framing manipulation in a foreign language.

It seems that decisions made in a second, and therefore less familiar, language are more rational, depending less on emotional responses. One of the researchers’ experiments dealt with a game in which participants were presented with a choice to either keep a dollar or to bet it on a coin toss, given certain factors. The statistically wise move would be to take the bet, but those using their first language were less likely to bet the money. On the other hand, those who heard the presentation in their second language were more likely to make the bet. In other words, the first group listened to their ingrained, less-rational fears, while the second group thought through the situation more clearly.

So how would this affect everyday life? “People who routinely make decisions in a foreign language rather than their native tongue might be less biased in their savings, investment, and retirement decisions,” say the researchers. Hmmm. No word on how this would affect our decisions while visiting a foreign casino.

Addendum: While I was looking at the page in Psychological Science, I saw a link to the abstract of “Losing Access to the Native Language while Immersed in a Second Language: Evidence for the Role of Inhibition in Second-Language Learning” (Jared A. Linck, Judith F. Kroll, and Gretchen Sunderman). From what I can tell, the gist of the study verifies that immersion learning is more effective than classroom learning, and that this is in part because immersion learning serves to inhibit the use of one’s native language. That’s somewhat interesting, but that’s not what caught my attention. The opening sentence is what grabbed me: “Adults are notoriously poor second-language learners.” Now that doesn’t pull any punches. I wish I could have had that printed on a t-shirt to wear when I started learning Mandarin at the age of 37.

(Tom Jacobs, “Second Language Translates into Clearer Thinking,” Pacific Standard, April 24, 2012; Boaz Keysar, Sayuri L. Hayakawa, and Sun Gyu An, abstract of “The Foreign-Language Effect: Thinking in a Foreign Tongue Reduces Decision Biases,” Psychological Science, July 21, 2011)

[photo: “think hard,” by Mutiara Karina, used under a Creative Commons license]


2 thoughts on “On Second Thought: Your Second-Language Decisions May Be Better

  1. Hi Craig – thanks for stopping by my blog. Am working in Hungary and dealing with a lot of EFL speakers – will add a link to this post on the TM Facebook page. Nice one.


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