Foreign language effect: how thinking in L2 slowly turns you into s**t

You are standing on a footbridge and enjoying the stunning view of a railroad running below. Suddenly, you notice a train sneaking towards – oh, Heavens – a peaceful group of absentminded retirees-hikers taking a promenade along the track. Another second, and they all will be killed – unless you do something. In despair, you look around and realize that the only way to save these five innocent lives is to grab that heavy man smoking next to you and push him off the bridge in front of the train. Thus, the trail will be stopped, the man will be killed but the hikers will be saved.

So the question is… Would you sacrifice this one life to save five instead?

Well… Now it really depends on whether English is your first or second language. And it has something to do with a so-called foreign language effect.

What is the foreign language effect?

This wonderful moral challenge you’ve just read (you’re welcome) was presented by a team of American psychologists to seven hundred bilinguals1. Their task was to make a choice. They could either opt for killing one person in order to save five lives or choose to save his life by not intervening and watch these five people die instead.

The rationality and common sense here are clearly on the side of a single kill. However, the idea of getting implicated into a murder is emotionality weary, so no surprise that people generally prefer a less logical option of non-intervention. Because the individual rights, the nature of destiny and other blah-blah-blah.

What’s the trick, you may wonder.

The trick was that the half of bilinguals had to read the dilemma in their native tongue while another half had to deal with this in their second language.

The results were remarkable.

Only 20% of those who read a question in their mother tongue chose a pragmatic option and mentally killed the man. Which is fine. The problem was that this number jumped to 33% (by more than a half) when these bilinguals solved the dilemma in a foreign language.

Whoa, what happened?

Well, the foreign language effect happened.

How foreign language effect kills your moral?

In the original article, the psychologists proposed a couple of explanations for these quite shocking results.

But let’s start with rejecting the version that the poor second language learners didn’t fully realize the question due to the low proficiency in L2. That’s not true: everybody passed the comprehension test. Neither did they reply in random. Come on, that’s a peer-reviewed article.

So what we’ve got here are two equally plausible foreign language effect theories. 

Theory #1: the use of a foreign language makes you less sensitive

If you speak a second language you may have noticed an interesting phenomenon.

Foreign words just don’t affect you that much. Swearwords sound like childish allegations and various expressions of attraction, that theoretically should evoke a strong emotional response, just scratch the surface.

Emotionality is indeed gravely affected by the second language use because the full processing of foreign words requires additional cognitive resources. And however ridiculous it sounds, the idea of pushing a man off the bridge just doesn’t hit you too much if it is considered in a second language. 

Thus, foreign language effect reduces impulsive reactivity, inhibits emotional processing and makes you a more rational, cold-blooded and utilitarian person.

Theory #2: the use of a foreign language promotes deeper thinking

In his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” Daniel Kahneman argues that decision making is essentially a game of two players. Namely, it is your immediate intuitive system that fights for resources with a more systematic, less automatic and generally highly deliberate outcome-calculator. It takes some time to turn the latter on, but it usually comes up with a logical and rational answer “favoring the greater good”.

From this, you can derive yet another explanation of the foreign language effect. The preference for a more rational utilitarian choice could be the result of that slow logical system activated in your brain. Since the second language use requires a higher cognitive effort, bilinguals tend to slow down and consider their options more deliberately.

Both theories have something to offer. And I know that you would prefer to think that the reason for your “rational” choices is just a more deliberate cognitive processing.

But no.

Foreign language effect and emotional desicion making

The sad reality is that the second language shamelessly and ruthlessly inhibits your emotional response.

This answer comes from another experiment that explored the foreign language effect on decision biases in the considerations of risk
2. In that study, participants were given $15 and offered to bet on coin flipping. Each round they could either keep $1 or gamble it. If they were right in their “head/tail” choice, they received $1.5; if they were wrong they lost their $1 bet. From the scientific perspective, the game had a positive expected value. However, since we are all too human, the automatic “loss aversion” reaction tends to kick in and prevent individuals from taking a bet.

And it all worked just fine with those who used their mother tongue. But guess what? Second language speakers didn’t react that way! Instead, they tended to seek risk and make more bets when they played the game in a foreign language.

The problem is that it simply cannot be due to a higher cognitive load. The logic is the following. If L2 were to overload cognitive system it would cause you to rely more on the intuitive system which, in turn, automatically induces loss aversion. Consequently, participants would prefer to keep their $15 rather than gamble around. In reality, however, the opposite happened. Second language users tended to take the risk if, in the long run, a positive outcome was to be expected. 

Psychologists concluded that decisions made in the second language are not that emotional as ones made in L1 for a simple reason that you just don’t feel the same way. Or, to rip off the quote from the same article:

“In general, then, decision biases that are rooted in an emotional reaction should be less manifest with a foreign language than with a native language.”

Boaz Keysar, Sayuri L. Hayakawa and Sun Gyu An, “The Foreign-Language Effect: Thinking in a Foreign Tongue Reduces Decision Biases”

Use foreign language effect to your own best

So, there you go. 

The fact of thinking in another language affects your decision making and morality judgments. It also eliminates the framing effect, reduces loss aversion and makes you relatively numb to expressions of love, hate, and other human emotions. Did you freak out yet?

Relax, it’s not always going to be this way. The foreign language effect tends to fade in highly proficient second language learners. So the more fluent you become in your L2, the more you think and feel like a native speaker. And as you live your life in a second language, the psychological distance shrinks and you become – once again – a biased and irrational thinker.

Welcome back.

At this point, it is useful to stop and think how you can consciously use the foreign language effect to your own benefit. Being a pragmatic decision maker may not look pretty when you have to kill somebody (“for better good”, once again). But it will certainly do you a favor when you have to make important long-term decisions. So considering your employment options, breakups and financial decisions in your Italian, Spanish or French may actually increase your chances of making a good choice.

Author Details
Polyglot, Author and Founder of Linguapath
Hey! I am Alina Kuimova, and my long-lasting obsession with learning languages led to creation of this site. Apart from being a grammar enthousiast, I enjoy reading smart books in any language available, finding easier ways for the brain to learn things and buffing productivity stats by 180%.
  1. Costa, Albert et al. “Your morals depend on language” PloS one vol. 9,4 e94842. 23 Apr. 2014, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0094842
  2. Keysar, Boaz, et al. “The Foreign-Language Effect: Thinking in a Foreign Tongue Reduces Decision Biases.” Psychological Science, vol. 23, no. 6, June 2012, pp. 661–668, doi:10.1177/0956797611432178.

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