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Business decision ahead? Better think it through in a foreign language

When you sign a contract, your natural emotional response is to feel uncertainty and fear. However, you may abate your fear if you make this decision in a foreign language. It may seem weird, but there is an explanation.

Research by the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago has confirmed that when you make a decision in a foreign language, you are more likely to choose a riskier option, which usually is more beneficial for you. It probably is linked to emotion processing in our brains; you are less emotional when talking in a foreign language, and therefore less prone to be stirred by fear. These results have been confirmed by research conducted in several countries, such as Spain, Germany, Argentina, China, Japan, Italy and the USA.

In Poland, the research was led by Lucyna Momot. It involved an experiment in which 100 Poles had to make a decision by flipping a coin. In February 2014, Ms Momot took part in a project of the University of Chicago, and in March 2014 she started her own research in Poland.

Every participant was initially given 90 PLN. Their task was to flip the coin and pass to another of 20 rounds of the play. The player could choose not to flip, and pay their way into the next round. If they risked a flip and bet correctly, they could make it to the next round free of charge. The point was to make it through all 20 rounds while keeping as much of the money as possible. The game was constructed in such a way as to make taking the risk more profitable.

As it turned out, thinking in a foreign language is more rational

The participants would risk less when playing in Polish than when playing in English. The latter group would consequently win more money. The research in Poland, just as in all other countries, confirmed that when making a decision in a foreign language we are more likely to take risk. The natural fear of risk is embedded within the emotions triggered when you use your mother tongue; when you think in your first language, it stops you from taking the risk.

Negotiations? Only in a foreign language!

If you think about Nelson Mandela and the negotiation he had with Will de Klerk on overturning apartheid, you realise how important the language of the negotiations was for the cause. Not many people noticed that the two spoke in Afrikaans, de Klerk’s mother tongue. But was it Mandela’s courtesy? When asked about it, Mandela answered: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

Many years later this effect was confirmed by scientific research and called the Foreign-Language Effect.

When making a financial decision, think it through in a foreign language

Learning a foreign language is a powerful tool in helping to see the world in a different way. It is also an important, often indispensable, element of professional development. It comes with an effort, but it is rewarding. It increases your professional perspectives and positively affects the brain. 

One cannot overestimate the value of learning a foreign language. In the modern world, rightfully called a global village, speaking English is a necessity, and when you think of the advantage bilingualism gives you in the financial field, it becomes clear that you should learn a language other than your own.

Lucyna Momot