Samuel Beckett, born in a suburb of Dublin in 1906, was a native English speaker. However, in 1946 Beckett decided that he would begin writing exclusively in French. After composing the first draft in his second language, he would then translate these words back into English. This difficult constraint – forcing himself to consciously unpack his own sentences – led to a burst of genius, as many of Beckett’s most famous works (Malloy, Malone Dies, Waiting for Godot, etc.) were written during this period. When asked why he wrote first in French, Beckett said it made it easier for him to “write without style.”
Beckett would later expand on these comments, noting that his use of French prevented him from slipping into his usual writerly habits, those crutches of style that snuck into his English prose. Instead of relying on the first word that leapt into consciousness – that most automatic of associations – he was forced by his second language to reflect on what he actually wanted to express. His diction became more intentional.
There’s now some neat experimental proof of this Beckettian strategy. In a recent paper published in Psychological Science, a team of psychologists led by Boaz Keysar at the University of Chicago found that forcing people to rely on a second language systematically reduced human biases, allowing the subjects to escape from the usual blind spots of cognition. In a sense, they were better able to think without style.
The paper is a tour-de-force of cross-cultural comparison, as the scientists conducted six experiments on three continents (n > 600) in five different languages: English, Korean, French, Spanish and Japanese. Although all subjects were proficient in their second language, they were not “balanced bilingual.”
The experiments themselves relied on classic paradigms borrowed from prospect theory, in which people are asked to make decisions under varying conditions of uncertainty and risk. For instance, native English speakers in Chicago who had learned Spanish in the classroom were given a $15 stake. Then, they were asked to make various bets based on a coin toss: if they correctly picked heads or tails, they would win $1.50, while an incorrect guess would cost them $1. From a rational perspective, these bets are a smart wager – a subject who chooses to bet on all fifteen trials would most likely come out far ahead.
But people aren’t rational creatures. When thinking in English, students only chose to bet 54 percent of their time; their fear of losses kept them from properly assessing the situation. However, when the same options were described in Spanish, subjects made significantly better decisions, choosing to place bets 71 percent of the time.
The scientists also found that thinking in a second language reduced our cognitive inconsistencies. Consider this scenario, pioneered by the great psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman:
The U.S. is preparing for the outbreak of an unusual Asian disease, which is expected to kill 600 people. Two alternative programs to combat the disease have been proposed. Assume that the exact scientific estimates of the consequences of the programs are as follows: If program A is adopted, 200 people will be saved. If program B is adopted, there is a one-third probability that 600 people will be saved and a two-thirds probability that no people will be saved. Which of the two programs would you favor?
When this question was put to a large sample of physicians, 72 percent chose option A, the safe-and-sure strategy, and only 28 percent chose program B, the risky strategy. In other words, physicians would rather save a certain number of people for sure than risk the possibility that everyone might die. But what about this scenario:
The U.S. is preparing for the outbreak of an unusual Asian disease, which is expected to kill 600 people. Two alternative programs to combat the disease have been proposed. Assume that the exact scientific estimates of the consequences of the programs are as follows: If program C is adopted, 400 people will die. If program D is adopted, there is a one-third probability that nobody will die and a two-thirds probability that 600 people will die. Which of the two programs would you favor?
When the scenario was described in terms of deaths instead of survivors, physicians reversed their previous decision. Only 22 percent voted for option C, while 78 percent of them opted for option D, the risky strategy.
Of course, this is a ridiculous shift in preference. The two different questions examine identical dilemmas; saving one third of the population is the same as losing two thirds. And yet, doctors reacted very differently depending on how the question was framed. When the possible outcomes were stated in terms of deaths – this is the “loss frame” – physicians were suddenly eager to take chances. They were so determined to avoid any alternative associated with a loss that they were willing to risk losing everything.
It turns out, however, that thinking bilingually can dramatically reduce this bias. When 121 American students were given a version of the scenario above, nearly 80 percent chose the safe option, just like those doctors. However, when the same situation was placed in a loss frame, that number plummeted to 47 percent. So far, so obvious: we are consistently inconsistent creatures.
But when native English speakers were presented with the same problem in Japanese, the inconsistency vanished. In both frames, the number of people choosing the safer option was just over 40 percent.
It’s worth pointing out that these results are somewhat surprising. After all, one could also speculate that forcing people to think in a second language would consume scarce mental resources, thus making it harder to select the “rational” option. We’d be so distracted by our lack of fluency that we’d become even more reliant on our short-sighted instincts. Such a result would support reams of research showing that increasing the “cognitive load” of subjects can increase their bias.
But that’s not what happened. Instead, the psychologists found that the reduced emotional valence of a second language – the words aren’t so weighted with feeling – made it easier to resist the tug of loss aversion. (Similar results have been achieved with neurological patients who, after suffering a serious brain injury, are unable to experience any emotion at all.) The scientists argue that second-language thinking can systematically improve decision-making: “People who routinely make decisions in a foreign language might be less biased in their savings, investment and retirement decisions,” they write. “Over a long time horizon, this might very well be beneficial.” Given the known costs of loss aversion among financial traders – it’s a huge issue – perhaps it’s time that those on Wall Street begin thinking in a non-native tongue. If I were a risk manager at J.P. Morgan, I’d start recruiting bilingual employees.
This is only the latest study to capture the power of bilingualism. For instance, children raised in bilingual households show increased levels of self-control and appear better at learning abstract rules and ignoring irrelevant information. (These benefits seem to exist as early as 7 months of age.) Other studies have demonstrated that people who speak two languages are diagnosed with dementia, on average, about four years later than people who only speak one language. There are some confounding variables here, of course: it takes a certain kind of smarts to learn multiple forms of expression, and those smarts might act as a cognitive buffer. And yet, even when intelligence is controlled for, interesting differences persist.
What’s behind these benefits? The answer appears to involve the extra processing triggered by holding multiple languages inside the head. Several studies using different methodologies have found that the brains of bilinguals typically activate both languages when communicating, even when only one language is relevant. This additional activity is not always helpful, which is why bilinguals are often slightly slower at retrieving their words from the depths of memory.
Nevertheless, learning how to cope with this constant interference – having to toggle back and forth between different forms of description – comes with lasting benefits. (A similar logic explains why people with Tourette’s also exhibit enhanced cognitive control. Because they are constantly attempting to control their tics, they also learn how to restrain those impulses they’d like to do without. Practice makes perfect.)
Samuel Beckett argued that the constraints imposed by a second language were inseparable from its benefits. He was right. It’s always easier to think with those words we know so well. But sometimes we need that pause of incomprehension, that blink of doubt that occurs when we encounter a verb tense we don’t recognize or an adjective with an unclear set of connotations. Language isn’t just the stuff of thought – it can also make our thoughts better.
And yet, let’s not get too practical here. Lera Boroditsky, a psychologist at Stanford who has done some fascinating work on how language shapes thought, pointed out in an email that the real benefits of bilingualism far exceed the marginal cognitive edge captured in these studies:
There is one very important advantage of learning other languages that I think beats any gains in cognitive control or delays in the onset of dementia. When you learn other languages you can then actually speak those languages, read those literatures, talk to new people in their native language, eaves-drop on their conversations on the bus, order off the menu, pick up that gorgeous stranger in the piazza. I think that’s cooler than having a few extra points on the Wisconsin card-sorting task.