How thinking in a foreign language improves decision-making

On Sunday, Sept. 17th The Guardian published a piece, authored by the science writer David Robson, that reports on recent research that has demonstrated the powerful cognitive impact of working across languages. The piece, entitled “‘I couldn’t believe the data’: how thinking in a foreign language improves decision-making” begins:

As Vladimir Nabokov revised his autobiography, Speak, Memory, he found himself in a strange psychological state. He had first written the book in English, published in 1951. A few years later, a New York publisher asked him to translate it back into Russian for the émigré community. The use of his mother tongue brought back a flood of new details from his childhood, which he converted into his adopted language for a final edition, published in 1966.

“This re-Englishing of a Russian re-version of what had been an English re-telling of Russian memories in the first place, proved to be a diabolical task,” he wrote. “But some consolation was given me by the thought that such multiple metamorphosis, familiar to butterflies, had not been tried by any human before.”

Over the past decade, psychologists have become increasingly interested in using such mental metamorphoses. Besides altering the quality of our memories, switching between languages can influence people’s financial decision-making and their appraisal of moral dilemmas. By speaking a second language, we can even become more rational, more open-minded and better equipped to deal with uncertainty. This phenomenon is known as the “foreign language effect” and the benefits may be an inspiration for anyone who would like to enrich their mind with the words of another tongue.

The piece concludes:

For those who already speak another language, this may be an unexpected payoff for all your studies. For those who do not, such benefits may offer an extra incentive to pick up your old French textbooks, sign up for a night class in Spanish, or download Duolingo. Nabokov’s experience may have been exceptional, but we may all undergo a mini-metamorphosis as we immerse our minds in the words and idioms of another culture.

Hardly big news for practitioners of multilingual literary and cultural history, but a validation.

Jeffrey Schnapp