Monday, July 15, 2024

The ‘unbelievable’ benefit of learning a new language

Ever wanted another reason to dust off your Spanish textbooks, unfold creased vocabulary lists from last summer or restart your daily streak on the language learning app you habitually swipe past? This might just be it.

In 2023, after years of planning, research and independent trials, University of Chicago professor Boaz Keysar sat down to examine the results of his latest psychological experiment. He sought to find out whether thinking in a foreign language affects the quality of our decision-making.

Professor Keysar described his findings as “unbelievable.” (Lisa Yount/Unsplash)

The results were “unbelievable,” according to Keysar.

Making decisions in a foreign language can help our choices become more rational, flexible, open-minded and logical. The data from Keysar’s trials showed that the process of moving from our native tongue to a second language can change the way we think.

The reason is that brain functions related to thinking in a foreign language and the cognitive processes used create a level of emotional distance in what we say and the decisions we make.

Changing our morals for the better?

A high-speed train is barrelling down the tracks below the bridge you’re standing on. You see five people walking on the tracks ahead, who in short order will be hit by the train and killed instantly. The only way to save them is to push the person next to you off the bridge and onto the tracks, thereby bringing the train to a stop and saving the lives of the five further ahead.

Would you sacrifice the life of one person to save five?

Keysar, himself bilingual, wanted to find out whether the way a person would react to this ethical dilemma would vary if they thought about the problem in one’s mother tongue and in a second language.

The utilitarian response — meaning the best outcome for the most people — is to actively push the man in front of the train because you would save four lives. But many decide against it because the idea of actively taking a life fills them with dread and terror and would instead opt to take no action. 

Keysar used this problem for his first experiment. Fluent second-language Spanish speakers were asked to consider the decision in Spanish and in their native English. The results showed unequivocally that, those asked in their adopted Spanish, would choose to push the man in front of the train to save the five otherwise certain for death.

According to journalist David Robson, the “effect was so big that Keysar delayed publishing the results” because Keysar simply “couldn’t believe the data.” 

Keysar then increased the sample of participants dramatically and later expanded his experiment to include people from the United States, Europe and Asia. The results were equally one-sided. One sample found that participants “were twice as likely to choose the utilitarian option when speaking and thinking in a second language.” 

In July 2023, Keysar teamed up with a fellow professor, David Gallo to further examine the benefits of learning another language. Gallo described how “speaking in your native language can lull your brain into being less able to process information objectively.”

“Your emotions start to impede your rationality,” he said. “This speeds up your decision-making, meaning you more prone to mistakes.”

Other benefits of learning a second language include increased memory and reduced likelihood of illness. (Unsplash)

Testing the theory in Oaxaca

After reading Keysar’s research, I wanted to put the theory to the test, but I had reservations about whether thinking in another language would change the decisions I make. I called my Spanish teacher, Barbara, who rather paradoxically, is also one of the most in-demand English teachers in Oaxaca city.

I first heard about her — and her reputation — from Mexican friends. Barbara is originally from Poland, with word-perfect English and fluency in Spanish.

My partner and I became her first and only Spanish students in the spring of 2023, and the way she thoughtfully spoke about teaching English was so impressive.

Speaking about the barriers to language learning, Barbara described how “We all have different needs, fears, and difficulties when it comes to learning. We also have different experiences to relate to.”

Gordon put the theory to the test in Oaxaca city. (Roman López/Unsplash)

The fear and difficulty of language learning is something every learner has felt. It hinders us from taking the next steps to getting better in a new language, which once achieved could be the very thing that enables us to think more rationally.

“We, as adults, learn best by doing, trying, practicing and, also, failing,” Barbara added. “But on top of that, we need to know why we are trying. What is this learning for?”

Barbara’s opinion points to the rationality in learning. Thinking logically is something we aim to do with learning as soon as we formulate patterns in verb endings and sentence structures, and then try to commit them to memory. 

And by doing this, we take one step closer to being able to achieve fluency, which would allow us to think in a foreign language if we put our minds to it. 

Keysar and Gallo’s research might not seem relevant to everyone. But it’s a fresh perspective on the benefits of language learning traditions which are as old as time. At the very least, it’s another hidden benefit of spending an extra five minutes rewriting your most recent lesson notes, pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone to go to a Spanish-speaking hairdresser or restarting this time, life-long streak on Duolingo.

Gordon Cole-Schmidt is a public relations specialist and freelance journalist, advising and writing on companies and issues across multi-national communication programs.


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