Attention spans are short, timelines to make decisions are uber-condensed, and the pressure to think and act quickly has never been greater. It’s no wonder employees and learning leaders are searching for ways to achieve optimal intellectual performance.
Most learning leaders think about language training as a means to either close important communication gaps in the global enterprise or as a way to enhance the employee experience through an enticing professional development opportunity. But adding language training to learning offerings offers an added bonus: In addition to increasing engagement and deeper relationships with colleagues, clients or partners, communicating in a second language offers employees new opportunities to apply and even enhance their existing critical thinking skills. A study from the University of Chicago suggests that decision-making becomes more rational in a second language because it creates new mental space for more deliberative, critical thinking.
There are many definitions for critical thinking. But this essential soft skill generally includes an individual’s ability to explore and understand a problem and its consequences, to view possible solutions by considering various perspectives, to assess the value of information at hand, and eventually to make a decision that solves the problem. Critical thinking is a characteristic in an individual’s overall thought process and can be developed over time.
When put to the test, critical thinking skills are often reflexively applied based on one’s ability to apply logic, rationally evaluate a situation, and make an informed decision. This reflexive application of critical thinking can change when switching from a native to a non-native language. Typically, there are biases at play when assessing situations, opportunities and related decisions in the normal course of business. However, key biases do not necessarily cross over when using a second language.
When participants in the aforementioned University of Chicago’s study were presented with a situation in their first language, the way potential losses and gains were presented influenced thinking that led to a response. However, faced with the same situation in the second language, thinking focused instead on a broader set of possible outcomes. This suggests that making decisions when using a second language can reduce bias so that deliberative and rational thinking occurs more easily. A second language makes room to consider the long view, a valued benefit in many business decisions.
The University of Chicago study also showed that participant interactions conducted in a second language could serve as a springboard for more thoughtful deliberation. Essentially, thinking processes become less intuitive and more measured as emotional biases that shape decisions diminish. At the same time, instead of reacting emotionally to words and phrases that are themselves emotionally charged, when using a second language, participants veer away from giving the emotional response they might have given in their native language.
There are many practical benefits associated with speaking a second language. When conducting business in a multilingual environment, language barriers can hinder production processes and customer interactions. Language training prepares employees to reduce or overcome those barriers, and contribute to more effective teams that create more positive outcomes.
When employees reach a proficiency level that matches their organization’s needs, tactical language skills are important, but they should not be the sole indicators of potential career and organizational success. Cultural awareness, critical thinking and problem-solving skills also contribute to a successful multilingual portfolio.
Operating in a second language prompts more systematic approaches and lessens emotional thinking when making decisions. Using a non-native language helps to create a cognitive distance that prizes deliberation over actions driven by emotion and intuition. The result in the global workplace is less bias in business decision-making when using a second language.
Sheerin Vesin is the HR Practice Lead for Rosetta Stone’s Enterprise & Education Marketing Group. To comment, email editor@CLOmedia.com.