“Would you make the same decisions in a foreign language as you would in your native tongue?” asked psychologists led by Boaz Keysar of the University of Chicago in an April 18 Psychological Science study.
“It may be intuitive that people would make the same choices regardless of the language they are using, or that the difficulty of using a foreign language would make decisions less systematic. We discovered, however, that the opposite is true: Using a foreign language reduces decision-making biases,” wrote Keysar’s team.
Originally from Wired Magazine, I’m wondering how does this impact doing business in China? My two cents (in English):
First, it means that given the same sets of circumstances you likely will NOT make the same decisions in a different language environment. That’s HUGE for CSL speakers that are both learning Chinese (almost all of us foreigners) and working in China.
Second, it means that understanding and decision making in ESL is also different for your English speaking Chinese staff.
Third, there are limits to fluency and translation on the effectiveness of thinking through something in a second language. How many of us have, years after learning a second or third language had an epiphany about a word/concept that we use all the time when we hear it used in a new context? I know that this happens to me regularly in Thai and Chinese. I’ve “learned” and used a word for years, decades even, and then one day someone uses it differently and it hits me, “Oh, yea, it can mean that too.”
Further, it likely means that when you’re not thinking in your second language you’re making decisions “normally” as are your Chinese counter parts (although each person’s “normal” is different).
The research in the article point out that the second language literally gave people more pause and more deliberation, thus possibly allowing for better decision making.
From the article:
“The researchers believe a second language provides a useful cognitive distance from automatic processes, promoting analytical thought and reducing unthinking, emotional reaction.
“Given that more and more people use a foreign language on a daily basis, our discovery could have far-reaching implications,” they wrote, suggesting that people who speak a second language might use it when considering financial decisions. “Over a long time horizon, this might very well be beneficial.”
One other aspect I was considering is both the level of risk-adverseness in each culture/language and also what is valued (time, money, decorum, relationships, immediate success, long-term goals, etc.). I know that because of second/third language abilities I “reverse engineer” decisions and Chinglish or Thinglish sentences all the time. I’ve been doing it for decades now, it’s second nature. (I’m surprised at times when non-Chinese speakers don’t “get” what’s going on sometimes, but then realize it’s an acquired skill.) I’ve also come to realize that my counterparts are deconstructing what I’m saying as well–and over the years we’ve learned to hire for this skill/ability. This, I think, is very valuable in negotiations and problem solving, especially in High Context cultures like Chinese.
I can see that thinking about things in a second language can have dramatic effects on decision making, both good and bad. Delays/thinking things through can be positive, but there certainly are limits to the value of analyzing a situation in a second language (while still based in your first language culture/values).
After 20 years in China/Taiwan and Thailand I believe that the majority of foreigners that “love” China don’t (yet) speak the language. And oddly, those that have the most difficult time with the business/govt culture are those that have dedicated the years necessary to learning the language. The acquisition of a second language may allow for more deliberation on decisions, but those decisions not made in a vacuum and there are so many other factors that contribute to the final outcome in addition to just language understanding.
What do you think?