Anyone who has lived totally immersed in a secondary (or tertiary or…) language can attest to the moment when they stop translating in their minds and actually think directly in the other language.
It is magical, and like most magical things it sneaks up on you, often unnoticed until the day you wake up and realize that you have changed, via a lovely fission, adding a new persona to your entourage of selves.
You know you have crossed this border when you dream in the other language, or use it to speak to animals or inanimate objects like cooking pots or unresponsive electronic gadgets when left alone with them, or when your first response when you stub your toe is to curse in foreign tongues, and mean it.
The day I knew for certain that I reached this point was when I returned to the States for a visit with my mama after much time spent abroad. I met her in the kitchen that first morning and spent five minutes talking to her in a language she had absolutely no understanding of, completely oblivious to the fact that she had nary a clue what I was saying. She listened patiently until I had finished, smiling almost beatifically at me with an expression of mild amusement, bafflement and a pinch of pride.
While the basic thought processes are no doubt the same (unless you are truly of dual minds, which would be totally creepy), there is a shift. In my experience you actually feel different. Yes, it is a cognitive and linguistic shift, but in addition it is a physical, emotional one.
I thought of this when reading of the research of Boaz Keysar and his colleagues at the Univ. of Chicago. Studying what they call the “Foreign-Language Effect,” their theory is that you actually think differently when cloaked in another language, and not only that, but that your whole framework of decision-making changes, which may or may not be a good thing, depending on the circumstances.
Their studies focused on whether or not people are more likely to take “favorable risks” when decision-making occurs in a foreign tongue, and they concluded that indeed we are. While we naturally avoid loss, we are far more likely to take bolder risks when we are without some of our cognitive biases and can be more deliberative and free to embrace situations where loss is a possibility without getting caught up in the emotional reaction of our fear of it. Makes perfect sense, right?
Now their study was presented, at least in the press, as a way of looking at the global economy and the behaviors which dictate how we function within it. But, being no econo-wonk, my mind took the research to what I know best, which is twirling my tongue around words and wrapping my eyes around other cultures, being humbled and awed by how that opens my mind.
I interpret the emotional distancing Dr. Keysar noted to mean that we are not necessarily colder or more robotic in those judgments made in a foreign language, but instead perhaps purer and more instinctual, freed of our biases in a way that allows us to step back, yes, but then dive right back in with renewed vigor to seek out the core, whether it be of an economic conundrum or a person.
You are no less you in another language, but perhaps you are a purer you, without just a few of the biases we place on people and situations when we first encounter them. I certainly feel viscerally different when I communicate in other languages, energized and even able to see things I might not have noticed or considered in my own. New ways of communicating with one another can only enhance understanding.
And perhaps we all could use a bit of this new perspective when dealing with our friends and loved ones. Another fascinating study by Dr. Keysar called “The Closeness-Communication Bias,” examines how while we may think we communicate best with those closest to us, we might get a bit lazy and get locked in our own perspective far more often than we might with a stranger, or:
“…people engage in active monitoring of strangers’ divergent perspectives because they know they must, but that they ‘let down their guard’ and rely more on their own perspective when they communicate with a friend.
I’m not so much interested in learned ways of communicating, the basis of thousands of self-help and business books which attempt to teach us how to better ourselves and our communication. But this sort of thing, fascinates me…how language and context can enhance the way we look at the world and one another. (Mandatory travel and/or cultural immersion for all… amen...) Ahh how the brain functions in such complex ways, endless variations to the same theme, to form our realities which are, in the end, simply that. Ours.