Think in a different language to get it right

Recent research reveals a surprising fact: we think and decide in a different way depending on the language in which we process the information (if we use our mother tongue or a second language instead). We may understand the idea or the problem just as well in both languages, but if we think about it in our second language, the result will be more reflexive, less emotional, more orientated to a useful outcome. “To have another language is to possess a second soul,” Charlemagne once said. Maybe it also means to possess a second brain.

Albert Costa, a prestigious scholar in bilingualism at Pompeu Fabra University, started his research with the popular dilemma called “the trolley problem”: would you throw a man to the rail tracks so that his death avoids five other people being killed? Would you kill one person to save five? The moral conflict we all feel just thinking of pushing him to death will disappear in most people as soon as we are asked it in a second language. Actually, 20% of people will slaughter that one man if they process the information in their mother tongue, but the percentage raises to almost 50% if you pose the question in a foreign language.

In a recent article published in ‘Trends in Cognitive Sciences,’ Costa explains that in a foreign language, we focus less on our first emotional answer when asked about moral dilemmas. Not only that: we tend to take more risks, seek more gain… and we also get less offended by insults, according to his group of research (link in Spanish). Even when moral intention conflicts with the result of the action, the final outcome is often more important when using a foreign language. See, for example, the research of Janet Geipel, from Toronto University.

The reason for this changing behaviour is, however, not clear. Costa explains that “it could be that we think slower in a foreign language, and we understand that emotions are more linked to our native language.” Actually, cultural nuances may never be adequately conveyed in specific situations such as talking to a close friend or when seeking psychiatric help.

Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman, author of ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow,’ explains that our brain has a System 1 for intuitive answers, faster and more efficient but with cognitive biases, and a System 2, in charge of those answers which require reflection. In our mother tongue, System 1 will naturally come easier to monitor the problem; additional efforts to use a second language will rouse System 2, lazier but more judicious.

This could also explain situations like in UN or EU summits, where most of the members take decisions in a foreign language (as also happens in international projects, multinational companies, Scientific research, etc.). It may be a great idea to promote the use of English in the sessions of the Spanish Congress and solve this political impasse from a different perspective and lessen the emotional touch.

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