Language is a powerful tool, and as Vladimir Nabokov discovered during his revision of his autobiography, 'Speak, Memory,' it can lead to a strange psychological journey.
Nabokov initially wrote his memoir in English, published in 1951, but later translated it into Russian for the émigré community at the request of a New York publisher. This translation process back into his mother tongue sparked a cascade of new childhood memories, which he then incorporated into a final edition in English in 1966.
This linguistic metamorphosis, from English to Russian and back again, was a unique experience that he likened to the transformations of butterflies.
In recent years, psychologists have delved into the intriguing phenomenon of the 'foreign language effect,' which explores how switching between languages can influence various aspects of human cognition, decision-making, and perception. This effect offers an array of benefits, making it an enticing prospect for those interested in enriching their minds by exploring different languages.
The foreign language effect should not be confused with the concept of 'linguistic determinism,' which posits that the structure and vocabulary of a language can fundamentally shape how individuals perceive the world.
While the film 'Arrival' explores this idea through the alien language influencing the characters' perception of reality, the foreign language effect is distinct.
It is not tied to a language's specific linguistic features but rather to moving from one's native language to a second language.
One of the fascinating areas of research surrounding the foreign language effect involves its impact on moral reasoning. Boaz Keysar, a researcher at the University of Chicago, was inspired to investigate this when he realised that his native Hebrew still carried more emotional weight for him than English despite having lived in the US for many years.
Keysar wondered whether this emotional connection to language could affect moral decision-making, often relying on gut feelings rather than logical analysis.
Consider the classic 'trolley problem,' where a person must decide whether to push a heavy man off a bridge to save five others on a train track. In preliminary experiments, participants who had learned Spanish as a second language were more likely to choose utilitarian when considering this dilemma in Spanish than their native English.
The effect was so pronounced that Keysar hesitated to publish the results initially. Collaborative research later confirmed these findings across participants from diverse backgrounds, highlighting that speaking a second language can lead to more utilitarian moral choices.
The foreign language effect extends to financial decision-making. In investment, individuals often exhibit 'myopic loss aversion,' a bias where they prefer guaranteed, smaller gains over risking larger, uncertain ones.
Keysar's research revealed that this bias is less pronounced when individuals make decisions in a foreign language, suggesting that linguistic switches can make people more willing to tolerate financial uncertainty.
The foreign language effect has been found to reduce the influence of cognitive biases like the framing effect and the sunk cost effect, which often sway our judgments and decisions.
Intriguingly, the foreign language effect can also challenge our self-perceptions. It can deflate our "bias blind spot," the tendency to believe we are less prone to errors than others. Speaking a foreign language appears to puncture this egotistical mindset.
The foreign language effect is robust and replicable, as confirmed by Simone Sulpizio at the University of Milano-Bicocca and Michał Białek at the University of Wrocław. However, more research is needed to understand the mechanisms behind this phenomenon fully.
Beyond decision-making and personality, the foreign language effect extends to memory. Our memories are intricately tied to the words and narratives we use to describe events.
Speaking a second language can make childhood memories seem less vivid, which can be an advantage for processing traumatic experiences.
The foreign language effect discourages the formation of false memories. Participants in studies were less likely to incorporate misinformation into their recollections when they performed tasks in a foreign language. This suggests that using a second language promotes more careful and deliberate thinking, encouraging individuals to question the accuracy of their memories.
The foreign language effect even touches on personality traits like 'tolerance of ambiguity,' which influences our comfort with uncertainty and willingness to embrace new experiences. Bilingual speakers tend to score higher in tolerance of ambiguity when using their second language, fostering adaptability, creativity, and successful problem-solving.
Understanding the foreign language effect is crucial in our increasingly globalised world, where multilingualism is common.
People should be aware that their language choice can systematically affect their thought processes and outcomes.
Switching to a second language can be valuable for approaching important decisions, calming emotions during personal challenges, and fostering open-mindedness in contentious debates.
For those already proficient in another language, this knowledge is an unexpected reward for their language studies. For those unfamiliar with a second language, it might motivate them to embark on a linguistic journey.
Nabokov's metamorphosis through language was exceptional, but we can all undergo our mini-metamorphosis as we immerse our minds in the words and idioms of another culture. The foreign language effect invites us to explore the limitless potential of language and the transformations it can bring to our lives.