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.
The authors ran additional experiments using a paradigm called loss aversion, another case where emotion can influence decision making. People are reluctant to accept bets that involve a chance of losing money, even if the odds are in the favor of winning, such as a 50 percent chance of winning $12 vs. losing $10. Keysar and colleagues found that, regardless of whether the bilinguals played with hypothetical money or real cash that could be kept after the experiment ended, bilinguals accepted the positive bets more often when they played using their foreign language and more often resisted betting when using their native language. This confirmed the finding of being reasoning more logically when using a foreign language.
Language has been traditionally viewed as a vehicle for communicating information (indeed, Chomsky famously characterized language as a mental algebra). Researchers have assumed that, as along as people are proficient enough, then how they respond will not be affected by the language they are using. It is now becoming better appreciated that people answer surveys differently depending on the language. For example, Chinese international students studying in North America agreed with traditional Chinese values more when answering a survey in Chinese; they had higher self-esteem scores when completing a self-esteem questionnaire in English. The full extent of these effects of languages on responses are still being investigated.
Like the other emotional-language effects discussed above, Keysar's study on how language influences decision making are laboratory effects. Is this what happens outside the lab? Psychologists are increasingly advising foreigners in the US to seek psychotherapy with a bilingual counselor, and, to minimize missing nuances or emotional implications, to avoid conducting life-or-death conversations in a foreign language, such as a serious talk with a doctor, taking a polygraph test, or undergoing police interrogation. But in the decision making case studied by the Chicago team, use of a foreign language led to more logical and better decisions. Does this imply that bilinguals should routinely seek to use their foreign languages when making decisions? Should they buy a house or plan their retirement using a foreign language? An ethnographic approach could analyze cases where individuals end up using their native or a foreign language to conduct business. A wide range of laboratory and/or field experiments should be conducted in order to determine if the elimination of framing effects is a cute laboratory finding or something that may influence real life.
Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe. He can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.