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  • Writer's pictureMac Ling

Languages & Activities

Can you learn a skill more effectively if you practice it exclusively in a dedicated foreign language?

"Learning how to speak with different word order is like driving on the different side of a street if you go to certain country, or the feeling that you get when you put Witch Hazel around your eyes and you feel the tingle. A language can do that to you."

- John McWhorter

Language as Instrument

There are innumerable reasons to learn a foreign language, one of which is a pure delight in the language itself. Take famed linguist John McWhorter's description—quite literarily complex in itself—of the thrill of integrating new sounds into one's linguistic palate:

"Have you ever learned any Cambodian? Me either, but if I did, I would get to roll around in my mouth not some baker's dozen of vowels like English has, but a good 30 different vowels scooching and oozing around in the Cambodian mouth like bees in a hive. That is what a language can get you."

Other reasons, perhaps less colorful but infinitely practical, are borne of necessity (navigating the train system in a foreign country, or communicating with a grandparent in their native tongue). In these instances, language is used primarily as a point of access to an experience that would otherwise be less available or less rich in its absence.

Some of us are drawn to languages simply because we don't know them. It becomes exhausting, in a sense, to perfectly understand everything all of the time—we yearn for the curiosity of the child, the thrill of the obscure cadence sweeping us gently along, stoking our alertness and our desire to understand what we yet do not. It is this sense of alertness—and of the excitement for the "new"—that I suggest we attempt to harness in a new way.

Historically, certain languages have become associated with certain activities and they carry an ancestral relevance in this sense—ballet is taught in French terms in many countries in the world; some forms of yoga incorporate Sanskrit terms, even though practitioners hail from a variety of linguistic backgrounds; names of foods often reflect a medley of languages layered atop one another over time. Such connections are often the result of wide global movements, imperial conquests, periods of early exploration, or institutionalized convention.

Just as we communicate as individuals according to a mutually agreed-upon linguistic system, we as individuals are the source of changes within that system. In other words, we have the ability to dictate how and when we use language—we are not, by any law, convention-bound. And, thanks to technology, the learning of languages is no longer confined by geography; as such, it need not be tied to a matter of necessity—instead, it can organically develop into a trove of opportunity.

In this newsletter, I ask you to consider approaching language for a dual purpose—to forge a connection between a new language and a new skill of your choosing, even if said connection does not yet exist. I urge you then to then delight in both your chosen activity and your chosen language, carving out a number of hours each week to live in a world of your own making; the texture of a time and space that feels just a bit different from your "regular" life. Perhaps you will learn how to bake, but you will only read instructions in German; or you will write poetry, but you will only do so in Turkish.

Beyond the oft-cited cognitive and cultural benefits, let's explore how we can employ a foreign language as a tool to help us achieve a fun personal goal.

YOUR TASK FOR THIS MONTH (...should you choose to accept it)


STEP 1 Choose a language that you have always wanted to learn; this language will eventually intertwine with the activity you choose in Step 3. This exercise will be most effective—and the ensuing memory associations more pronounced—if you opt for a language in which you do not conduct any other personal life business. (If you work at an Italian restaurant, for example, you may not want to choose Italian as your language; if you do, you run the risk of muddying your language-activity connection with thoughts of work). STEP 2 Find a method of learning this language—there are many out there! Aside from local classes (which are ideal in that they also offer a social element) and private tutors, you can use one of the popular digital methods (Duolingo, Busuu, or Rosetta Stone offer a plethora of language programs and can at least boast the longevity of commercial success). STEP 3 Define the outcome, skill, or activity you will practice. Is there something you have been meaning to pursue but can’t seem to find the time—learning to play the guitar, training for a marathon, or learning how to paint? If you have not yet embarked on the path to this goal, all the better (for the purposes of this exercise). Many people also start learning languages with the goal of "learning how to speak," which can be too daunting and broad. Starting with a realizable outcome like ordering food at a restaurant, or buying an orange from the grocery store can be an easier place to begin. These two new learning developments will take root in tandem, helping you achieve a level of clarity and separation from other concerns of your daily life. STEP 4 Whenever you practice your activity of choice, do something to solidify the connection between this activity and this language. If you have chosen to play guitar, for example, you may choose to listen to and play songs only in this language. If you have decided to take up running, you may listen to news radio in this language as you run. If you are learning how to build furniture, read the instructions in your new language, keeping a dictionary on hand (spurred on by the necessity of getting these right in time sensitive situations like this, you may even learn the language more rapidly!). REFLECTIONS If you are able to think in your self-assigned language every time you do your chosen activity, the hope is that you will have implemented a feedback loop. Once the connection between the activity and the language is cemented, you will have created an inviolable space in your linguistic psyche that—in some sense—is dedicated to a single one of your goals.


Might your brain be hard-wired for more success if you conduct business in a language outside of your native tongue? To which party would this give the upper hand in a business exchange based on pure logic?

A popular study at the University of Chicago, conducted by Boaz Keysar, Sayuri Hayakawa, and Sun Gyu An, points to the unexpected idea of a linguistic home-court disadvantage when attempting to engage in rational decision-making.

It is often said—and if you are multilingual, you may have experienced it in your own life—that you interact differently depending on the language in which you are speaking. This is because, likely, you learned each language for a particular purpose and use it in a specific set of situations.

When making decisions regarding resources, according to the University of Chicago study, humans tend to be loss-averse; that is, they are reluctant to take risks that might diminish their reserves, even when the probable payoff may warrant the risk.

According to Keysar, people make decisions that are far less loss-averse when they contemplate the choice in a non-native language. The researchers posit that this is because, when we think in a foreign language, the reasoning portions of our brains are engaged moreso than the portion that has amassed emotional associations from a lifetime lived in the native/dominant tongue. Thus, when considering an economic investment or making a decision that is best served by rationality divorced from emotion, it may be a good idea to train yourself to contemplate in a foreign language on command!

This was revealed in a fascinating experiment regarding “thought asymmetry.” Researchers revealed results that echoed a principle linguists have suggested for generations and that seems a matter of intuition: Respondents make different decisions depending on whether something is framed as a gain or a loss. The twist, however, is this: In experiments conducted in the U.S., France, and Korea (using different native and non-native tongues), it was shown that people making decisions in a foreign language were not subject to the same thought asymmetry. Whether something was framed as a gain or a loss, they tended to respond in the same way. In other words, they were not as affected by the linguistics of the presentation of the choice; rather, they were able to discount the words and assess based largely on the facts.

So would an English-speaking businessperson be well-served by conducting business meetings in Japanese? Well, if you believe (as I do) that such decisions should not be made purely on considerations that discount emotions, then likely not—in fact, emotionally uncomfortable solutions may come to look less unattractive, promising as their rational aspects may be. A bilingual discussion, one might suggest, would provide a balanced conglomeration of rationality and emotion.

In thought experiments involving students thinking in their native language versus a foreign language, the potential dangers are apparent. In a language-morality study by Albert Costa, undergraduates were presented with a version of the “trolley” problem (a morality thought experiment in which a person is asked whether they would sacrifice one person to save five). Students were more willing to risk the five individuals when presented the situation in the foreign language (the “rational”-based choice); fewer students opted for this choice when presented with the dilemma in their native language, supposedly more conflicted by the natural moral aversion to sacrificing even the one person. The researchers concluded that thinking in a foreign language helped to soften the instinctive emotional and moral reaction to the sacrifice, encouraging students instead to focus on the facts and opt for saving five people instead of one.

In addition to the emotion vs. reason dichotomy, some researchers have pointed to another potential reason that thinking in a foreign language increases deliberative thought: Because your brain is so engaged with the logical business of processing the components and comprehension of the foreign language, it operates more slowly (and thus considers decisions rationally) rather than succumbing to knee-jerk emotional reactions.

Experiments such as this have been repeated in terms of ethical behaviors, swearing, and even ordering decadent desserts! In each of these cases, behavior was changed to a statistically significant extent when participants were asked to think in a foreign language.

"4 Reasons to Learn a New Language" by John McWhorter (TEDTalk) McWhorter, a polyglot and a famed linguist, makes an energetic appeal for language learning for its own sake. "How Knowing a Foreign Language Can Improve Your Decisions" by Catherine Caldwell-Harris (Scientific American) In this article, Caldwell-Harris provides an accessible summary of recent experiments in the foreign language and decision-making realm; this may serve as a good introduction to the field for those who wish to delve further.

"How the Languages We Speak Shape the Ways We Think" by Lera Boroditsky (UCTV Seminars) In this talk, Boroditsky describes how the seemingly impressive cognitive feats (involving spatial navigation, time, and other topics) of different cultures might be associated with features of each culture's language. "At What Rate are Languages Dying?" by Michael Campbell (The Glossika Blog) Glossika is an AI-inspired approach to language learning that takes a different stance on organization than do the more famous Rosetta Stone or Pimsleur methods—it is worth checking out! And, if you're looking for a new language to learn, this blog article on their site offers a robust list.


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