The study of how people process foreign languages has traditionally focused on the topics we wrestled with in high school French or Spanish classes -- botched grammar, misunderstood vocabulary, and mangled phonemes. But in recent years psychologists have gone to the laboratory with a phenomenon that historically was only discussed in memoirs by bilingual writers like Vladimir Nabokov and Eva Hoffman: a foreign language feels less emotional than the mother tongue. Consider the case of taboo words. For many multilinguals, swearing in a foreign language doesn't evoke the same anxiety (or bring the same emotional release) as using a native language. Decreased emotionality in a foreign language spans the gamut of emotions, from saying “I love you,” to hearing childhood reprimands, to uttering morally grave lies, or being influenced by persuasive messages in advertising.
Researchers have sought to understand the range and limits of these emotional language effects. Lower proficiency and/or late acquisition of the foreign language seems to be a crucial constraint. For people who grew up bilingual, skin conductance responses and self-reports were similar when listening to emotional phrases in either language. One method for finding new types of emotional-language effects is to examine areas where cognitive neuroscience reports that people can switch between analytical processing and emotional processing. Gut, automatic or instinctive reasoning is grounded in an emotional good-bad response. Alternatively, reasoning can be the result of a deliberative process that involves careful, logical analysis. Would bilinguals be more analytical and less emotional when making decisions in a foreign language?
Boaz Keysar, Sayuri Hayakawa, and Sun Gyu An of University of Chicago asked this question in a paper recently published in Psychological Science. They studied framing effects, a phenonmenon investigated by Daniel Kahneman and others. When a decision is verbally framed as involving a gain, humans prefer a sure outcome over a probabilistic outcome. When the same situation is framed as involving losses, people sometimes prefer to gamble. For example, given a scenario involving 600 sick individuals and two types of medicines to administer, research participants prefer the medicine which will save 200 people for sure, rather than the medicine which has a 1/3 chance of saving all 600 sick people and a 2/3 chance of saving no one. If the formally identical illness scenario is provided, but framed in terms of how many people will die, then research participants are more likely to choose the probabilistic option. Framing effects are one of the classic examples of how humans deviate from logical reasoning, and indeed, individuals with a propensity for logical reasoning, such as those with Asperger Syndrome, are less influenced by the verbal frame when making these types of decisions.
The Chicago researchers randomly assigned bilinguals to read and respond to decision-making scenarios using either their native or foreign language. Similar versions of the study were conducted in the U. S, France and Korea. This was important because a foreign language may feel more emotional when it is the language of daily life, as happens when studying at a foreign university. English was the first language for the U. S. participants and the foreign language for Korean participants. In France, English was the native language and the French was the foreign language but also language of immersion. Data from all three locations were consistent: the standard framing effects were found for the native language and were absent in the foreign language. The implication is that people were less influenced by emotional aspects of the scenarios when reading scenarios in their foreign language. This is an impressive finding since one might have supposed that the stress of using a less proficient language would diminish the cognitive resources needed for deliberative reasoning, thus pushing people to make gut, instinctive or emotional responses.