The Link Between Economic Decision-Making and Speaking in a Foreign Language

By Sean Moore

The cognitive benefits of learning a foreign language are well documented. Studies consistently reveal that bilinguals, when compared to monolinguals, enjoy enhanced cognitive command, better creativity, stronger multitasking prowess, and superior problem solving abilities. Bilinguals are typically faster in engaging the brain's executive control centers simply because they speak and think in two languages.

Research conducted by Dr. Ellen Bialystok, a cognitive neuroscientist and research professor of psychology at Toronto's York University, even reveals that the onset of the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease tends to occur later in bilinguals than in monolinguals. Why might this be the case? The explanation may well be centered on something called cognitive reserve. The process of learning a new language and speaking it requires the brain to work harder, keeping it sharper and stronger. Brains with elevated cognitive reserve are thought to be able to more adequately compensate for the loss of neurons associated with Alzheimer's disease.

Neuroscientists from Dartmouth College detected more overall activity in the brains of people who switch between two languages than those who speak only one. The neuroscientists used imaging technology to observe that monolinguals use only the speech areas of their left brains. Bilinguals, on the other hand, use the speech areas in both their left and right hemispheres, and they exhibit increased left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex activity as well.

Furthermore, thinking in a foreign language may fascinatingly help economic decision making, according to a news article published in the UChicagoNews. Researchers at the University of Chicago have discovered that people make more rational decisions when they think through a conflict in a non-native tongue. People are more likely to take favorable risks if they think in a foreign language, the study shows.

In the paper, "The Foreign Language Effect: Thinking in a Foreign Tongue Reduces Decision Biases," Boaz Keysar, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago and a leading expert in the field of communication, wrote, "A foreign language provides a distancing mechanism that moves people from the immediate intuitive system to a more deliberate mode of thinking."

In the University of Chicago study, supported in part by the National Science Foundation, participants, all of whom were native English speakers at the university who acquired Spanish proficiency in the classroom, received $15 in dollar bills, from which they took $1 for each bet. Participants had the opportunity to keep the dollar or risk it for the possibility of receiving an extra $1.50 if they won a coin toss. Thus, they could either net $2.50 if they won the coin toss, or get nothing if they lost the toss. Statistically, the participants stood to come out ahead if they accepted all 15 bets.

When given the experiment in English, the students focused more on their personal fear of losing the bet, and they took the bet only 54 percent of the time. This increased to 71 percent when the students did the experiment in Spanish.

These results suggest that thinking in a foreign language could be extremely beneficial in evaluating choices and making decisions in a personal finance or business setting. Decisions happen to be less biased, more rational, and more systematic when considered in a non-native tongue. Thinking in a non-native tongue helps us detach ourselves from emotions and make decisions in a more economically rational way.

Given the declining state of the global economy, perhaps world leaders should make economic decisions using a non-native tongue. That is, of course, if they are multilingual.

About the writer

Sean Moore is a foreign language teacher and contributor for The College Sean is fascinated with the latest studies that aim to explore the benefits of learning a foreign language.


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