The Perks of Bickering in a Second Language

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Photo: Cultura/Howard Kingsnorth/Getty Images

On the most recent episode of “On the Media,” there was a really interesting segment in which Brooke Gladstone spoke with Boaz Keysar and Albert Costa, two researchers working on the question of how bilingual people might make certain decisions differently depending on which language the decision is described in.

As Keysar explained, it appears that when bilingual people are given decisions to make in their non-native language, they seem to take a more rational, less quick-draw approach — maybe because processing the scenario takes a bit more cognitive energy. He ran one study in which participants had to choose between flipping a coin and winning either $2.50 or nothing, or taking a dollar without having to flip a coin at all. When the game was explained in the participants’ native language, they flipped the coin about 50 percent of the time; when it was described in their non-native language, that number jumped to 70 percent. “In a way they’re less inhibited by their fears,” said Keysar. From an economic perspective, taking the coin flip is the “correct” choice, and the language barrier apparently helped nudge people toward it.

Costa said some intriguing things about how this idea could be applied to relationships:

If you start having a fight with someone and you’re speaking a second language and the fight is heating up, pretty often you switch to your first language and you say things you don’t want to say. So when you fight in a second language, perhaps you take more psychological distance and you can cool down and perhaps … [it] allows you not to say things that you will regret later on.

It’s an interesting idea — using the stumbling stones inherent in trying to express yourself in a second language, even one you’re pretty good at, as a sort of emotional buffer to prevent a fight from needlessly escalating. I’m not in a position to try this out given that neither my Spanish nor German rise to the level of even a slow-on-the-uptake toddler from Barcelona or Berlin, but I’d encourage bilingual Science of Us readers to pick a fight with a loved one tonight and report back on the results.