What Makes Us Human

And one percent Neanderthal

Getting Outside Your Head

New experiments show you make better decisions by thinking in a foreign language

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Why does the US have such a low level of knowledge of foreign languages? And, what do we lose by not cultivating more language learning?

Recent Census Bureau data show that the proportion of US residents who speak a language other than English at home has doubled over the past thirty years, rising to 20%. About 50% of those speakers of other languages also report speaking English "very well", implying that about 10% of the current US population can be considered bilingual. Other sources say that 82% of the US population is monolingual, which would mean about 18% of the population speaks at least two languages.

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Compare this to reports that in Europe, 50% of the population over the age of 15 can carry on a conversation in a second language.

Yet news reports note that since 1997

the percentage of elementary and middle schools that offer foreign language courses has fallen significantly, from 31 percent to 25 percent at the elementary level and from 75 percent to 58 percent at the middle school level.

Nor are universities immune to the reduction in language programs; in 2010, the State University of New York at Albany eliminated French, Italian, and Russian-- and Albany was not alone.

To quote Russell Berman, the Walter A. Haas Professor in the Humanities at Stanford University, "We are becoming a nation of second-language illiterates".

Berman makes an argument for cultivating our capacity for language, characterizing it as part of what makes us human:

Humans may well be the only animals with speech—language makes us human—but no one speaks a universal Ur-language. Instead, we all speak our own particular language or languages. This means that there are always languages that are not our own, that other people speak, and that we can try to learn as a first step toward understanding others.

If such lofty ideals aren't enough to motivate you to learn another language, try this: research newly published in the journal Psychological Science shows that you make better decisions when you think about them in a foreign language.

 The research team, led by Boaz Keysar of the University of Chicago, concludes that

Using a foreign language reduces decision-making biases....these effects arise because a foreign language provides greater cognitive and emotional distance than a native tongue does.

A press release explains the experiments conducted in enough detail for readers to get the picture.

Once the research pattern was reproduced in lab experiments, the researchers went out of the lab into natural settings, and found their results held up: thinking in a second language led people to accept bets that held low risk and promised major payoffs substantially more often.

It seems that those who can use more than one language have pragmatic advantages in everyday life. Maybe that can inspire more enthusiasm for increasing language learning in this country.

But don't bet on it.

Rosemary Joyce, Ph.D., is a professor of anthropology at UC Berkeley.

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