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Why Using a Foreign Language is Advantageous in the Workplace

by Jun 29, 2018Language and Culture

Sean Hopwood
MBA President and Founder at Day Translations, Inc.

The title of this BBC Capital article is quite interesting: “The Huge Benefits of Working in Your Second Language.” At first glance without reading the content of the article, some will probably think that there’s a typo in this title. Some may suggest that there’s a typo here, that the “in” should be an “on.” There’s no typo here, though. The article was originally titled “Why Using a Foreign Language Could Make You Better at Work” and it discusses the advantages of working in an environment where you are somewhat compelled to use a second language (working in your second language). It’s not mainly about presenting arguments or reasons on for readers to learn a second language (working on a second language).

Many already know that there are indubitable benefits in learning a new language but not many are aware that it can also be advantageous working in a setting where you are forced to use your second language. Being unable to use your native tongue may not be a stumbling block in having a good career; it can be an advantage.

This post will explore a number of studies that support the idea that there are major benefits in working in your second language.

Stimulating cultural thinking

A 2017 study revealed that languages have the ability to flex cultural thinking. This study, published in Cambridge Core, focused on the interactions between language and emotion and how these interactions affect the assessments made by a person with respect to cultural information. The subjects of the study were Welsh-English bilinguals who were made to judge as true or false certain statements about their native culture. These statements were presented in English and Welsh.

The study found that the participants had no problems judging positive statements as true when they were true but they had a bias towards judging statements as true even when they were false regardless of the language the statements were in. On the other hand, the participants ditched the bias when they were reading and judging negative statements presented in Welsh. Interestingly, they demonstrated reverse bias (judging statements as false even when they were true) when it comes to negative statements presented in English.

According to the researchers, this behavioral tendency suggests that people who speak two or more languages have a different way of perceiving and reacting to cultural information. These reactions and perceptions are said to be language-dependent.

Removing heuristic biases

In 2013, Israeli and Spanish researchers did a study that was published in the journal Cognition. The study, “Piensa” Twice: On the Foreign Language Effect in Decision Making, concluded that foreign language can reduce heuristic biases when it comes to making decisions.

Heuristic biases are basically simple rules that are used by people in coming up with decisions or judgments. They are regarded as mental shortcuts wherein a person focuses on just one aspect of a complex problem, ignoring everything else to more quickly come up with a decision. All these may sound good but heuristic biases create the possibility of committing systematic deviations from logic, rational choice theory, and probability. These biases are likened to “hidden traps” as they can turn into harmful biases at any stage of the problem solving process.

The study had over 700 participants who were made to examine various types of individual problems that require decision making. The study had four parts. The first was a replication of the observation in the 2012 Keysar et al study pertaining to the impact of foreign language on framing as it relates to loss aversion.

The second part focused on determining the presence or influence of a foreign language in other types of framing problems involving psychological accounting biases instead of gain/loss dichotomies.

The third part centered on the effect of foreign language in various aspects of decision making mired by risk and uncertainty. Lastly, the fourth section of the study evaluated the influence of foreign language in cognitive reflection test. This test comes with a set of logical problems designed to ditch any form of emotional connotation.

The study found that the use of a foreign language diminishes heuristic biases due to at least two reasons. The first is on account of the reduced emotional connection or resonance when there is a second language involved. The other reason is the perceived reduction in cognitive fluency and psychological distance. These mean that people are likely to become more objective when evaluating things in a foreign language. However, this benefit of objectivity tends to be diminished as a person develops an emotional relationship with the foreign language, as a person becomes more accustomed to the foreign language’s nuances.

Improving brain function, multitasking abilities

This is something many already know but it’s still worth pointing out. People who use different languages tend to have better brain function based on a number of research. This is mostly because the juggling of multiple languages serves as a mental exercise.

Judith Kroll, a distinguished psychology professor, pointed out during a symposium at Penn State a number of research showing that bilinguals outperform monolinguals when it comes to certain mental capabilities. These studies demonstrate how the use of multiple languages help develop better brains. Accordingly, bilinguals do better in areas such as editing, spotting irrelevant information, focusing on important details, prioritizing tasks, and doing several projects simultaneously.

Kroll noted how these studies contradict conclusions that using multiple languages stymy cognitive development. There used to be a considerable number of proponents of the idea that bilingualism results in confusion especially among children. For them, people who speak more than one language have difficulties in becoming truly fluent in either of the languages they use.

In line with the better brain function argument, the use of multiple languages is also deemed a boon for multitasking. This is believed to be because of the mental exercise that happens when multilingual person choose words to utter from their extensive vocabulary composed of words from different languages. This is referred to as code switching or language juggling, which is a good exercise for the brain as multilinguals don’t only select words from their extensive vocabulary, they also have to sort the words first to determine if they are the right words to use (i.e. picking English words when talking in English or choosing a foreign language word when conversing in another language).

Interestingly, people who use multiple languages seldom err in picking the right words to use. They appear to have more developed skills in choosing the right words as they mentally go over a number of alternatives. Kroll, however, noted that this does not necessarily make bilinguals or multilinguals inherently more intelligent or better learners. What is clear based on research is that bilinguals become better at specific skills, allowing them to better pay attention to critical tasks and disregard irrelevant information.

Becoming better at negotiating or dealing with customers

There are many instances in the workplace where being multilingual is greatly helpful. When doing high level critical negotiations, in particular, all of the advantages mentioned above all come into play. Multilinguals carry with them a better perspective, a better ability to sort important from irrelevant details, the absence of heuristic biases, and a better handling of cultural information. All of these are useful in doing critical negotiations.

Add to these the simple fact that being multilingual somewhat helps you buy time before responding in a discussion. People you are negotiating with tend to instinctively become more patient in waiting for a response as they understand that you may not have quickly grasped what they were trying to say. It’s like selling yourself short as discussed in this article on the Economist, making yourself appear flawed and inferior but discreetly analyzing things more carefully to respond better and come up with a better decision.

On the other hand, using a different language to discuss business is advantageous as it makes things emotionally distant, which can be good for negotiations. An American (who can speak Chinese) dealing with a Chinese customer, for example, will have less hesitations stating critical details like the price and contract terms when these details are said in a foreign language. It’s like being blunt/candid and endearing at the same time. You can be blunt in straightforwardly stating prices while endearing because you are using your customer’s language.

In another perspective, being fluent in a customer’s language can make you more dynamic as you try to read into their body language. It’s not just about trying to please the customer or making them at ease as you use their language. It’s also about taking advantage of every language hint you can use to better engage the customer and make compromises or sales pitch tweaks to more successfully lure the customer in.

The takeaways

Again, there’s no doubt that learning a new language has its advantages. Being in a work environment where you are compelled to use your your non-native tongue is not necessarily a disadvantage in building a career or running a business. It can be challenging but once you get over it, you will reap major benefits. If you think you have more to gain spending your time doing other more important things (other than learning a new language), however, the good news is that there are competent language translation service providers that can help address the language barrier in the workplace.

Going back to my friend’s story of his colleague, in a way it’s also a demonstration of how using a foreign language is advantageous in the workplace. The initial confusion with the title of the article does not necessarily mean lack of fluency in English. It’s a good demonstration of being keen to details. Typical native English speakers likely wouldn’t have minded the title since it works for the article with either “on” or “in” in it. It’s those who spend time trying to learn a new language who tend to be more observant, better at seeing things at a broader perspective.

Image Copyright: pressmaster / 123RF Stock Photo

Sean Hopwood
MBA President and Founder at Day Translations, Inc.

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