The science is in and it says if you want to make better business decisions you should learn a second language.

Recent research has found that people tend to be more rational when they think about things in a language other than their mother tongue. The study, a joint effort between the University of Trento in Italy and the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom, was actually studying languages' affect on people's superstitious beliefs.

Superstitious study

Researchers had Italian people who were bilingual in English and German read about scenarios that included common superstitious beliefs. The scenarios were things like submitting a job application after breaking a mirror or walking under a ladder or finding a four-leaf clover.  

The subjects were then asked to explain how the various scenarios made them feel and affected them. Researchers were able to ascertain that when subjects read and talked about the scenarios in their native language, they felt more negative feelings about the bad luck scenarios and more positive feelings about the good luck scenarios. However, when they read and talked about the same scenarios in a second language, they appeared to feel less anxiety about the bad luck scenarios and less confidence about the good luck ones.

In short, processing information in a language other than our native language seems to make us approach the situation more rationally. The researchers suggested this is because the part of our brain that processes our native language is more intuitive and prone to emotions while the part of our brain that processes other languages is more rational.

My experience

I like to think this is true, mostly because I do the majority of my business in my second language of English and I also like to think I make rational business decisions based on logic rather than my gut (unless that business decision is where to hold a lunch meeting).

A specific time I can recall this helping me out is when I was discussing with my wife a new product I was quite keen on selling in our business. This particular product was a bit outside of what we usually sold, but I felt a special affinity for it since I had used it myself and liked it. My wife was a bit more skeptical about selling it because it really didn't fit in with our overall product line and was not a product our target market would probably gravitate toward.

However, in our native Turkish, I was able to speak effusively about it and convince her that we should sell it even though it didn't really fit with our product line.

But, when I approached my team at the business, I had to speak in my second language of English. We have a diverse team at the company and English is actually the second language of many of our employees. Although we all speak English fluently, we naturally have a smaller vocabulary than in our native languages. It's also more difficult to speak passionately and "off the cuff" in a second language because so much thought goes into making sure you're using the right words.

Therefore, the conversation with my team ended up being much simpler and less heartfelt than the one with my wife and I wasn't able to be as persuasive with them. We all eventually agreed that even though I had a wonderful personal experience with this product that it was probably too outside our wheelhouse to carry.

Why you should take a language class

For people who conduct their business in their native language, this is yet another good reason to learn a second language, aside from all the known benefits of studying another language and all the great reasons to try living abroad.

If you're more apt to think rationally about a subject in your non-native language, it would be an interesting exercise to do just that. When you have a major business decision to make, try having a conversation about it in your non-native language and see what you come up with. It likely won't be feasible to have all your business conversations in a language that isn't your own, but it might be helpful if you have a tendency to "go with your gut" a lot instead of thinking things through.

So, pick a language that you're interested in, find some classes to take and try this interesting little thought experiment to see if it really does help you with your business decisions. And, if you're a parent, encourage your kids to take an interest in other languages. It will help them in the future.

Published on: Dec 21, 2017