Thinking in a Foreign Language

This is an idea that simply refuses to go away. Ever since the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and its debunking in the original naive form, the idea that language shapes thought keeps popping up. Now the behavioral economists weigh in to show that decision-making changes when you switch languages. The research is reported in a Wired article, Thinking in a Foreign Language

This looks like it is primarily about the mere fact of shifting gears to a different language causing greater deliberation. But I strongly suspect there are going to be patterns related to mental model construction and use in the to and from languages as well (i.e., specific ordered language pairs, (A, B), will likely have measurable and characteristic effects on the nature of decision-making).

You’d need more subtle tests for that though.

The researchers next tested how language affected decisions on matters of direct personal import. According to prospect theory, the possibility of small losses outweigh the promise of larger gains, a phenomenon called myopic risk aversion and rooted in emotional reactions to the idea of loss.

The same group of Korean students was presented with a series of hypothetical low-loss, high-gain bets. When offered bets in Korean, just 57 percent took them. When offered in English, that number rose to 67 percent, again suggesting heightened deliberation in a second language.

To see if the effect held up in real-world betting, Keysar’s team recruited 54 University of Chicago students who spoke Spanish as a second language. Each received $15 in $1 bills, each of which could be kept or bet on a coin toss. If they lost a toss, they’d lose the dollar, but winning returned the dollar and another $1.50 — a proposition that, over multiple bets, would likely be profitable.

When the proceedings were conducted in English, just 54 percent of students took the bets, a number that rose to 71 percent when betting in Spanish. “They take more bets in a foreign language because they expect to gain in the long run, and are less affected by the typically exaggerated aversion to losses,” wrote Keysar and colleagues.

The researchers believe a second language provides a useful cognitive distance from automatic processes, promoting analytical thought and reducing unthinking, emotional reaction.


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  1. Based on their premise the researchers should recruit fluently bi-lingual speakers to see if it has an effect. The difficulty lies in rating and classifying “fluently bilingual”.

  2. I was blamed for online computer conferencing on the internal network in the late 70s & early 80s. Somewhat as a result, a researcher was paid to sit in the back of my office for 9 months, taking notes on how I communicated (face-to-face, telephone, etc), they also went with me to meetings, got logs of all my instant messages and copies of all my incoming and outgoing email. The material was used for research report, Stanford PHD thesis (joint language and computer ai) and some number of papers and books. The researcher had previously spent several years as an ESL (English as 2nd language) teacher and we had some number of discussions about different languages having/lacking constructs for specific concepts. There was an observation that my use of English is more characteristic of a non-native English speaker (although English is my first language and only natural language that I’m really proficient in, although I was language “proficient” in various computer languages; i.e. could think & dream)..

  3. The “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis” is a straw-man argument propagated by Rationalist popular-science authors and was never “debunked” by anybody. What is considered to be the “strong Sapir-Whorf hypothesis” is obviously false and used to justify ridiculous arguments. What is considered to be the “weak Sapir-Whorf hypothesis” is obviously true in any of its vague formulations and serves only to enlighten those who have not given much thought to language and the mind as such.

    A more useful argument may be generated by counterposing constructivism and its various flavors with its opponents since “Sapir-Whorf” is merely a slice of the constructivist view.

    • Seems to have more than a bit of truth in it, though, doesn’t it? Without your thorough grasp of academic-sounding nothing-isms, would you actually be able to formulate such a trite and unsubstantiated non-response?

      Or would you be forced to resort to something more concrete than innuendo?