Written to the song: Olha a Explosão — MC Kevinho

“If we spoke a different language, we would perceive a somewhat different world.”
-Ludwig Wittgenstein

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Ilha Grande, Brazil.

As a rash thinker and multi-tasker, I know that I rush and make quick decisions. Although when I speak another language, I find that I slow-down and think-through my words. I intentionally pick my words and sort through my vocabulary to (ideally) pick the correct words.

Research led by Boaz Keysar analyzed people’s decision-making on various topics, from world-issues to conflict within the workplace. Keysar found that our emotional connection with our first-language alters our choices. In a previous post, I mentioned that most bilingual speakers feel like they have a different personality when speaking different languages, which they describe speaking in their first-language as “wearing a mask”. The implications to making decisions in your first language is that you naturally relate your mother-tongue to your family and reputation. The emotional feeling of familiarity subconsciously impacts your decision to think objectively. When speaking a second-language we use more brain-power to thoroughly think through our words and therefore our decisions.

Ilha Grande, Brazil.

In one of the studies, the researchers posed 800 native German speakers a moral problem, where you have five individuals tied to a train track and in the near-distance there is a runaway carriage. There is a large man near by, and if you push him in-front of the carriage he will die but the other five will survive. Do you do it?

Half of the participants were posed this problem in German, and the other half in English. The participants who were posed this question in their second-language were more likely to state that they would push the man in-front of the carriage. The researchers repeated this test with Spanish, Hebrew, Italian, German, French and English with similar results. The researchers hypothesize that in our first language we are able to better visualize scenarios, therefore explaining the hesitation to push the man. As well, the researchers report that “the use of a foreign language reduces vividness because it limits access to . . . memories” (Keysar, 2017).

As someone who works in a bilingual setting, I find this research to be super interesting. Even though I teach in French, almost all of my colleagues are native English speakers. As I have never actively thought about how I process problems between my two working languages, I am really intrigued. Is it worth it to now have discussions on major decisions with my colleagues in French versus English? Or should I just take this study as an interesting piece of information? The researchers are continuing their research in the realm of medical decision making across various languages. Stay tuned.


Keysar, Boaz, and Sayuri Hayakawa. “Using a Foreign Language Reduces Mental Imagery.” Egyptian Journal of Medical Human Genetics, Elsevier, 23 Dec. 2017, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S001002771730330X.

Author of “Q & A a Day for Travelers”. https://www.linkedin.com/in/anna-frenkel/

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