The 2-Minute Thought: Speaking a foreign language can make you more rational

Source: University of Toledo

Source: University of Toledo

If you’re fortunate enough to speak more than one language, you have many advantages over those who speak just one. 

The pluses go beyond navigating another country with ease or having rich interactions with the people who live there.  Various studies show that bilingual and multilingual people are more cognitively flexible and better able to adapt to the unexpected.  They are more aware of their surroundings and better at focusing on what’s important while weeding out what’s not (The Atlantic has pointed out that both Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot spoke multiple languages). 

They tend to do better on standardized tests.  And perhaps best known, multilinguals stay sharper into old age: The biggest recent plug for learning a new language is that it can stave off the onset of dementia.  

One 2012 study from the University of Chicago found that people who think in a foreign language make more rational decisions and are better at avoiding cognitive biases.  It looked at participants from three continents who were native in one of five languages (English, Korean, French, Spanish, or Japanese) but proficient in another.  When given problems on value and risk in a foreign language, they made better, more rational decisions.

In particular, the study looked at a well-known cognitive bias called loss aversion, a naturally human but irrational tendency to overweight the pain of losing over the pleasure of winning.  In this study, the loss aversion disappeared when participants communicated in a second language.  The conclusion:

“People who routinely make decisions in a foreign language might be less biased in their savings, investment and retirement decisions, as they show less myopic loss aversion.  Over a long time horizon, this might very well be beneficial.”

How could this be?  One thought is that while using a foreign language, people naturally distance themselves from their emotions.  Instead of automatically falling back on fear or hope or instinct, they become more analytical.  In addition, they don’t get trapped by the “framing” of questions.

Behavioral economists have long talked about our two ways of thinking – one fast and automatic and the other slow and careful.  Thinking in a foreign language, it seems, makes us switch from gut reaction to careful deliberation.

So if you already can speak another language, you are fortunate indeed.  On many fronts, the multilingual brain is superior to the monolingual one.

And if you don’t, acquiring another language could be a worthwhile endeavor -- but not an easy one.   Many have tried and failed, and most of us know that high school Spanish won’t do it. 

Everyone is different, but the U.S. State Department says that to get to what it calls Level 3, or minimum professional proficiency (below Level 4, “full professional proficiency,” and Level 5, “native proficiency”), it takes 575-600 hours of classroom-like study for an easier language like Spanish or French.  That’s at least 5 or 6 times what a typical year of high school Spanish gives you. 

And for a difficult language like Arabic, Korean, or several Chinese dialects, it would take 2200 hours.  That means that if you did five hours of conscientious study each week, you would need more than eight years!