Time to brush off that German textbook - and not just because you'll be able to communicate with German speakers. Researchers from the University of Chicago found that learning a foreign language may boost people's ability to make rational decisions.
The study was made up of six experiments conducted on three continents in three languages: English, Korean, French, and Spanish. The studies examined two different cognitive biases, both based on how risk-averse humans are.
One was based on the idea that a loss will be overwhelmingly more painful than a gain would be joyful. The researchers gave participants $15 in single dollar bills, and offered people the following wager: if they correctly predicted a coin toss to be heads or tails, they would earn $1.50. If they incorrectly predicted the outcome of the toss, they would lose $1. Statistically, they should have chosen to bet the money every time, because chances were that they would make money. But in their native tongues, participants refused to bet a significant amount of the time, only betting 54 percent of the time. In their foreign languages - languages in which they were proficient, but not balanced bilingual - they took the bet 72 percent of the time.
Researchers also tested a second cognitive bias: if two situations are equivalent and impersonal, people have a greater aversion to risk if the situation is presented as a potential gain rather than a potential loss. According to the blog Wired, in the scientists' example, they posed the following example to doctors:
"The U.S. is preparing for the outbreak of an unusual Asian disease, which is expected to kill 600 people. Two alternative programs to combat the disease have been proposed. Assume that the exact scientific estimates of the consequences of the programs are as follows: If program A is adopted, 200 people will be saved. If program B is adopted, there is a one-third probability that 600 people will be saved and a two-thirds probability that no people will be saved. Which of the two programs would you favor?"
In that scenario, 72 percent of physicians overwhelmingly chose Option A over Option B, because they would rather choose the safe strategy where people lived, over a risky strategy. So researchers offered the same scenario, worded differently:
"The U.S. is preparing for the outbreak of an unusual Asian disease, which is expected to kill 600 people. Two alternative programs to combat the disease have been proposed. Assume that the exact scientific estimates of the consequences of the programs are as follows: If program C is adopted, 400 people will die. If program D is adopted, there is a one-third probability that nobody will die and a two-thirds probability that 600 people will die. Which of the two programs would you favor?"
This time, the same group of doctors shifted preferences. An overwhelming 78 percent chose Option D - even though it was the same as Option B in the first scenario.
When these scenarios were given to American students, a similar percentage - nearly 80 percent - chose the safe option when it was presented positively, in English. But when they were given the same choice in Japanese, that percentage that chose the safe option plummeted to 40 percent.
Researchers believe that a second language can help people think more rationally. "We propose that these effects arise because a foreign language provides greater cognitive and emotional distance than a native tongue does," the authors write in the journal Psychological Science.
This study is the only one in a long line that touts the benefits of knowing or learning a second language. One recent study found that learning a language expands the brain, and another study found that bilingual brains tend to develop Alzheimer's disease, on average, four years later than their peers. Another study found that children who grew up in bilingual households have greater amounts of self-control and are better at learning abstract rules and ignoring unnecessary information - benefits that can be seen as early as in babies seven months old.
It is believed that the benefit arises because bilingual people need to hold multiple languages in their brain. That extra processing comes with increased control.
So, even though it might be annoying to learn how to conjugate verbs in Spanish, science says that it will be worth it.