December 16, 2020 1 Comment

John le Carré, and the benefit of thinking in a foreign tongue

To quote Charlemagne:To have another language is to possess a second soul.” […] Of course, the very business of reconciling these two souls at any serious level requires considerable mental agility. It compels us to be precise, to confront meaning, to think rationally and creatively and never to be satisfied until we’ve hit the equivalent word, or – which also happens – until we’ve recognised that there isn’t one, so hunt for a phrase or circumlocution that does the job.”

John le Carré died a few days ago and, expectedly, the Internet reacted with reviving some of his most memorable writings (see here for a great example). The above paragraph comes from one of his public lectures published in The Guardian in 2017. I chose to quote this paragraph because it is directly supported by empirical evidence from a wonderful paper by Boaz Keyzar, Sayuri Hayakawa and Sun Gyu An published in 2012.

Their question was deceptively simple, to some even obvious. They asked if one would make the same decisions in a foreign language as they would in their own native tongue. More precisely, they focused on decision biases. Decision biases are systematic errors in decision making that are often aligned with are intuitions and are therefore difficult for one to spot. Keysar and colleagues asked if people would be more or less vulnerable to a decision bias called Framing Effect when they thought in their native tongue vs in a foreign language.

What is framing effect?

Figure 1 illustrates an example of the Framing Effect as introduced by Tversky and Kahneman. They presented people with two different versions of a problem (see Figure 1) and asked them to choose from two alternative solutions A and B. You will notice that

  • Within each questions, options A and B have statistically identical consequences. Only A is sure and B is probabilistic (or risky).
  • Between questions too, option A is the same: saving 200,000 is the same as losing 400,00; option B is also the same.
  • However, people who answered Question 1, preferred A to B (top row pie chart) and people who answered Question 2, preferred B to A (bottom row).
  • Logically, for both questions, people should have been indifferent between A and B. However, depending on how the question was asked, people gave a different answer. People systematically and predictably deviated from the logical answer.
Figure 1. Framing Effect. Top row: Gain Frame. Bottom row: Loss Frame

The impact of Foreign language on Framing Effect

Keysar and colleagues presented the exact same problem depicted in Figure 1 to three groups of bilingual participants. Each participant answered their question either in their mother tongue or in a foreign tongue that they were proficient in.

People whose mother tongue was English and answered the question in English supported A more often under Gain (Figure 2, black bar on the left) compared to Loss (grey bar on the left) frame. In other words, these people demonstrated the framing bias. However, those who answered the question in Japanese were indifferent between Gain and Loss (black and grey bar on the right). The bias was eradicated!

Figure 2. Framing effect was cancelled when the native English Speakers answered the questions in Japanese

Similarly, native Korean speakers showed the framing bias when the question was put to them in Korean but not when the question was put to them in English. Repeating the experiment with French native speakers (answering in French or English) revealed a similar finding.

Figure 3. Framing effect was cancelled when the native Korean speakers answered the questions in englsih

These data showed very clearly that John le Carré was indeed right. The systematic error observed in framing effect was eradicated when people answered the question in their second language. Indeed, the obligation to use a foreign language seems to have compelled the participants to be precise, to confront meaning, to think rationally and creatively. le Carré’s article in The Guardian was titled “Why we should learn German”. Putting it together with the paper described here suggests that perhaps a better title would have been “Why we should learn foreign languages” or even better “Why we should learn to think in foreign languages”.

1 Comment

  • Claribel

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    in life.


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