Learning a foreign language has a lot of benefits – easier travel, making friends, or just stretching the mind. But here’s another benefit of learning a foreign language: it makes your decisions more rational. At least, that’s what researchers at the University of Chicago found – in two sets of experiments. Participants in the studies were native English speakers who also spoke another language, and they answered a set of questions about risk-oriented situations such as curing a viral disease and placing a bet.The study found that the participants make more rational decisions when they were posed the question in the foreign language.
Perhaps one of the reasons is that we think in our native languages, making us more instinctive and intuitive when we rationalize in our native languages. We create word-associations, form pictures in our minds, and focus more on the decision than the words. However, when we’re forced to think and verbalize in a foreign language, we need to apply the rational and analytical part of our brains – activating a more systematic thought-process. The proponents of this research call it “greater cognitive and emotional distance.”
This might have implications for copywriting and persuasion. Imagine a Singapore company (which normally writes advertising copy in English) selling a product in a regional market like Thailand. If the study holds true, a native Thai speaker would be more likely to make a rational decision on a product if the advertising copy is written in English. Conversely, a more emotional decision will be taken if the advertising copy is in Thai.
Of course, the results of the experiment are by no means conclusive. Still, it’s worth bearing in mind when conducting any sort of persuasive campaign that it’s not just words that make a difference, but the language that they’re written in, too.
Comments or questions are welcome.