Bilingualism can help you think

I had just started reading Guy Deutscher’s 2010 book, Through the Language Glass, an exploration of culture’s relationship with language, when I ran across “Does Speaking in a Second Language Make You Think More, or Feel Less?”

Julie Sedivy’s article, published online by Discover on May 30th, focuses on one way that language informs thought.

Sedivy writes that “we can have different feelings about the same thing—even make different decisions about it—depending on the language used to talk about it.” She reports that a new study in Psychological Science shows that “bilinguals were immune to framing effects and other cognitive biases—but only when working through problems in their non-native language.”

The new study repeats the basic “deadly disease dilemma” first explored by Daniel Kahneman and others. In the original experiment, framing the choice between two imaginary medicines in terms that emphasized the potential saving of lives was more attractive than the identical choice expressed in terms that emphasized the potential loss of life.

In the 2012 test, the researchers found that subjects were less susceptible to the framing effects of the experiment when the test was conducted in the subjects’ second language.

This “foreign language effect may come from either of two mechanisms. Wording changes may be less influential in a second language because words in a second language may not produce the same level of emotional and experiential connotations as do words in one’s native language.

Or the difference may have little to do with memory or associations and more to do with the fact that it’s harder to think in a second language and that difficulty slows down the thought process so that our immediate intuitive and emotional responses may be “overtaken” by our slower rational thinking.

In a related study, subjects were less prone to framing errors if they encountered the problem in a nearly illegible font. This suggests that the foreign language effect could be only one of a set of similar effects, in all of which the perceived difficulty of the task determines how deeply we think about it.

Creativity may require spontaneity and intuition, as Jonah Lehrer argues in Imagine (to be reviewed here soon), but many important decisions require more considered analysis.

Seen this way, Sedivy’s article doesn’t deal with the deeper issues around language and culture because the research summarized in her article isn’t really about language. It’s about the triggers for deeper reflection.

The core ideas in Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (previously reviewed on this blog) underlie these studies. Kahneman argues that we have two fundamentally different modes of thinking. Yes, “fast” and “slow.” There’s no putting one past you, is there?

Our “fast” thinking is essentially unconscious, which means that it is perceptually instantaneous. By the time that we’ve become aware of a stimulus, we’ve already responded to it. This response is uncritical, by definition, and it is for that reason the product of our homeostatic states and our instinctive emotions rather than a product of rational reflection.

If it’s not already too late to alter our course of behaviour, under appropriate circumstances our “slow” thinking processes kick in. These temporally retarded processes sometimes can change what we’re about to do or say. More often, they operate to explain (or explain away) the decision or action we’ve already taken.

So reading a problem in a second language, or deciphering a hard to read text, or facing any number of other circumstances in which comprehension becomes difficult — loud background noise, the emotional overflow of a recent argument with your partner, etc. — may slow down thinking long enough for our analytical processes to overtake our instinctive responses. When this happens, for whatever reason, we are less likely to fall prey to the kinds of errors typical of quick, intuitive judgements.

Too impulsive? Too often prey to bad, snap decisions?

Learn a new language, and liberate your rational mind!

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Deutscher’s book has been controversial ever since an excerpt was published online by the New York Times in 2010. American linguist John McWhorter, for example, quickly took Deutscher’s ideas to task in The New Republic. But I’ll save a detailed look at the ideas in Through the Language Mirror until I’ve read the second half of the book.

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