Thinking in Another Language: What Happens and Why?

Pascale Chauvot

19 Oct 2016

Working in your native language has obvious benefits – words come naturally, mistakes are rarely made in grammar, syntax or tense and, let’s face it, it’s easy.

But what about speaking and thinking in another language? What happens then and how does it affect your personality and decision making?

Thinking in Another Language: More Interesting Than you Think

Communicating in a foreign language has its benefits and drawbacks.  For example, speaking another language introduces grammar and other structural mistakes a native speaker would not make.  It may also seem sterile and unengaged, especially if the speaker has not spent a lot of time in an environment where their new language is in everyday use.

thinking in another language

Speaking a Foreign Language

Non-native speakers may also forget words they don’t use very often and may not have learnt more than one way to discuss a particular topic.  These difficulties are often magnified when the speaker is very tired or under a lot of stress.

On the other hand, they are likely to use simple words and a straightforward delivery style.  Although undoubtedly accented, their foreign accent is much more likely to come from their mother tongue rather than an obscure or difficult to understand region.

Interestingly, recent studies have shown that people are also more logical when speaking in a foreign language, especially when tasked to solve problems.  According to a recent expat article, decision-making skills can differ depending on which language is being used.

When speaking in Spanish, emotional factors were more prevalent in the decision making process for the Spanish group while when speaking English their decision making was more rational, logical and less emotional.

Language and Decision Making

Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona has studied a number of native Spanish speakers and compared their decision-making skills in Spanish and again in a foreign language, English.  The study concluded that emotional factors were more prevalent in the decision-making process when the participants were using Spanish.  They also showed a tendency to regard risk and certainty differently.

When making decisions whilst using English, the study showed the participants to be more rational, logical and less emotional.  Measurable differences were found in their attitude to avoid loss during the decision-making process.

Making Decisions with Emotion

The article also cites a study previously undertaken by the University of Chicago, which also found that decision making is less emotionally biased when conducted in a foreign language rather than in the participant’s native language.  The authors of this study were quoted as observing: ‘these effects arise because a foreign language provides greater cognitive and emotional distance than a native tongue does’.

Decision making is less emotionally biased when conducted in a foreign language

Something to Think about when Making Important Decisions

Although fluency and comfort in a foreign language are of paramount importance, organisations might wish to take note of which language could be most effective in certain difficult situations, perhaps beginning with the decision-making process when faced with complex problems.

This research begs the questions what if all decisions – business, diplomatic or military were taken in English rather than the native language of the participants? Would “better” decisions be made? Would conflicts be avoided? Worth thinking in another language!

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