Do Bilingual Brains Think Smarter?
Are you bilingual? It might make you think better. In a recent paper, a team of researchers headed by University of Chicago psychologist Boaz Keysar argue that speaking two languages serves as a remarkable cognitive power-up. Using study subjects from three continents who spoke English, Korean, French, Spanish, and Japanese (with less than perfect fluency in their second language), the researchers tested their rational decision making ability.
Though behavioral economists and other researchers have long shown that we are prone to making irrational economic decisions, the studies on bilingual people showed an interesting wrinkle in the problem. When asked the question in their native language, the subject would often make the irrational decision expected, but when asked in their learned language, they were more likely to make a rational choice. The researchers theorized that, because in the second language words don't have as much emotional baggage, we lose the connotations that might make us slip up.
Wired writer Jonah Lehrer sums it up:
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.
Not only does learning another language open up a whole new culture, it might actually help you think better! If the brain restrictions inherent in using a non-native language actually help bring clarity to decision-making, what other ways might we enhance cognition and rational thinking through constraint? The possibilities and implications seems endless.