Bilingualism: How the Language You Speak Affects the Way You Think

Declan Mulkeen

2 Mar 2016

As more and more organisations expand internationally they face numerous communication challenges. Key among these challenges is equipping employees to speak the corporate lingua franca (generally English) or the language of each market in which they operate. While HR and Learning professionals will be aware of the improved communication and team collaboration benefits that speaking more than one language brings they may not be aware of the enhanced decision making skills that bilingualism also offers.

 

Bilingual skills

International organisations recognise the need for local language skills, especially in sales and other customer facing roles and especially in markets where speaking the local language is a necessity if the corporate language is not widely spoken or sometimes not widely accepted.

Bilingual people have also been shown to benefit from the delay of age-related brain diseases, such as dementia or Alzheimer’s

Organisational Benefits

Organisations may consider the functional practicalities of adopting a common language and many clearly see the benefits of bilingual employees.  However, organisations might wish to reflect on the deeper impact of bilingual skills as well as the news is good for business.

In an article published in The Conversation, the benefits of bilingualism were explored.  As has been reported elsewhere, bilingual people generally have a stronger ability to see the world from more than one perspective.  For decision makers in particular, this may facilitate negotiations and the ability to see both sides of an argument and different points of view.

Brain flexibility has been linked to more than seeing things from more than one perspective

Health Benefits

Brain flexibility has been linked to more than seeing things from more than one perspective. Bilingual people have also been shown to benefit from the delay of age-related brain diseases, such as dementia or Alzheimer’s.

How Bilingualism Impacts How You Analyse the World

Just as crucially, The Conversation reports that bilingual people also benefit from not only how they view the world, but how they analyse it as well.  Research has been published in Psychological Science that shows people react differently to the same environmental information depending on which of their languages they are using when processing that information.

The Research

In the research, monolingual German or English speakers were asked to review and comment on several ambiguous scenarios.  An example is a woman walking where it appears as though she is walking in the direction of a car.  In the case of the German only speakers, most assessed the scenario in a goal-focussed manner, stating ‘a woman walks towards her car’.  On the other hand, most English only speakers assessed the scenario in an action-focussed manner, stating ‘a woman is walking’.

Bilingual German and English speakers were also asked to review and comment on the same ambiguous scenarios.  Comments were requested separately in German and in English.  Although these people had the ability to describe the scenario in both languages, their choice of language they responded in influenced whether they described the scenario from a goal-focussed or action-focussed perspective.

Double Identity?

Language choice goes much further than changing the choice of word

It has been noted countless times that bilingual and multilingual people have stated they feel like different people when they switch languages, even in the same environment.  Language choice goes much further than changing the choice of words.  It also gives the speaker the choice of how to use those words in the context of the language they are speaking.

In the case of our German and English speakers, the English language gives an advantage of non-specified action orientation with the grammatical construct of –ing with verbs.  The study reports that the German language does not have this equivalent construct.  Making action orientated statements in English not only easier, but also more logical as well.

Language and Context

Finally, our study recognises that people who are speaking in a language that is not their mother tongue tend to make more rational decisions.  This is attributed to a lack of deep seated biases that can be drawn upon in a person’s first language.

Organisations considering language policies in the workplace now have much more context to consider when setting linguistic expectations.  Understanding these cognitive differences and how they can impact the speaker and the impact on business can cause misunderstandings or focus on the wrong perceptions if not careful.  But reflecting on the richness of bilingualism and multilingualism, the choice of language can also be a very powerful tool indeed.



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