The hidden benefits of language learning

Seamless pattern of a group of hand drawn people holding "thank you" signs in different languages

Learning another language is an asset for anyone, but do you know the full extent to which it can benefit you in your professional and personal life? Antje Vogdt looks at the impact on decision-making, multitasking, creativity and divergent thinking

The immediate benefit of learning a foreign language is obvious: you learn how to understand and to express yourself in a different language and you become able to talk to people who do not speak your native tongue. This might be a choice, for easier travelling for instance, or an obligation in school or for work.

But the advantages of language learning go far beyond simply communicating with others. Among them, you will find that you improve your overall performance in daily life and at work: decision-making, multitasking and creative, divergent thinking are but a few examples of the great asset that speaking two or more languages are for the cognitive process.

1. Decision-making

Research has shown that people working in a foreign language are better at decision-making. A group of psychologists at the University of Chicago wondered if people would make the same decision in a foreign language as they would in their native tongue. The intuitive answer would be ‘yes, of course’. You could even think that the difficulty of using a foreign language would make decisions less systemic. Yet, the opposite is true.

To demonstrate that using a foreign language reduces decision-making biases, the team of psychologists under the guidance of Boaz Keysar divided a group of native English-speakers who also spoke Japanese into two. Those who were tested in their foreign language (Japanese) made less risky, more balanced and rational choices than those tested in English.

These loss-aversion tests were based on the theory of psychologist and Nobel Prize Winner, Daniel Kahneman, whose 2011 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, posits two general systems of thinking. ‘System 1’ is intuitive and quick, and used by the brain wherever possible in order to minimise effort. ‘System 2’ is deliberative and slow, and better suited for modern-life problems but demands more effort to activate and keep active.

Speaking a foreign language appears to activate System 2 in advance of tackling a tricky problem, heightening deliberation as demonstrated in the experiments. The researchers therefore believe that a second language provides useful cognitive distance from automatic processes and unthinking, emotional reactions (those activated in System 1) in order to promote a more analytical thought (System 2).

  • Foreign languages make you rich

Being able to express yourself in a foreign language will help you land a job and gives you an edge over monolingual candidates in job interviews. It offers more career growth, whether you choose to move abroad or explore international business opportunities. Candidates with foreign languages are offered higher salaries, and the accumulated benefit of the language bonus estimated to result in a very interesting extra sum by the time you retire. But that’s not all.

  • The prospect theory

The positive impact of foreign language skills on decision-making biases, as outlined above, is largely beneficial in relation to financial decisions. Keysar’s team used scenarios proposed by Kahneman – whose 2002 Nobel Prize in economics was awarded for his work on prospect theory – to develop several tests. For instance, Keysar’s team gathered a group of students from the University of Chicago and gave them each $15 USD in $1 bills. Each dollar could be kept or bet on a coin toss. If they lost a toss, they would lose the dollar, if they won, they received the dollar in return and another $1,50 USD. Almost half of the first group just kept the dollars.  

A second group of students spoke Spanish as a second language – unlike the first group, almost three quarters of the students decided to take the bets. Keysar and his colleagues concluded that those who were taking the bets in a foreign language were less affected by the so-called ‘myopic risk aversion’ phenomenon that describes that, rooted in emotional reactions to the idea of loss, the possibility of small losses outweigh the promise of larger gains. By using a second language, the second group of students had more cognitive distance and were therefore able to perceive that the proposition made by Keysar and his team, over multiple bets, is likely to be profitable.

2. Multitasking and focusing

The so-called ‘executive functions’ – which we might think of as being like the ‘CEO of the brain’ – are a set of mental skills that help the brain organise and act on information. Multitasking is one of the things that the executive control system handles. In a study led by researchers at York University in Toronto, monolinguals and bilinguals were put in a driving simulator. Through headphones, they received extra tasks to do – everybody’s driving got worse, but those who spoke more than one language made fewer errors in their driving, as they were able to stay focused.

Multilingual people are constantly ‘juggling’ between two systems of speech, writing and structure, a kind of constant mental exercise. This ability to switch helps them to filter the most essential information at any given time.

For Daniel Goleman, author of 2013’s Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, ‘focus’ is the hidden driver of excellence and ‘attention in all its varieties’ is a mental asset that is critical not only for your career, but also for living a fulfilling live. As he describes, attention connects us with the world. A second (or third, fourth…) language expands the number of people you can talk to, the number of universes you can explore. As you switch from one language to the other, from one system to the other, you train your power to disengage your attention from one thing and move it to another. You become more aware of the world.

3. Creativity

Bilingual individuals have demonstrated great creative skills in different arts. When learning a second language you dig deep into the mechanics, patterns, structures and syntax of the second language and confront them with your own language, thus strengthening your ability for complex thinking and understanding of the relationships between things.

Language determines the way we look at reality, and you will realise that there are different ways to understand our world. Learning a second language helps you to develop new experiences, new thoughts, new visions and new solutions. This form of divergent thinking is assessed, for instance, in the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking which measure a participant’s creative ability. Bilingualism is a great way to experience diversity. And diversity fuels creativity.

Recent studies into the benefits of language learning are less explicit, now acknowledging that the varying ways people use their language have different effects, and taking into account other factors, like context, background, the languages in question, how many foreign languages, and so on. (You can find out more in this 2020 article in The Economist.)

Learning a second language is always beneficial and, with all the apps and the possibility to watch films in VO (version originale – ie., in their original language) it has never been easier. Maybe you have transitioned to working from home, as many of us have done. Why not use the time otherwise spent in commuting and meetings to learn a foreign language? You’ll find a way to use it to your advantage.

Antje Vogdt is a publications and content manager with a passion for travelling and learning languages. She is currently exploring her love for design in all its varieties, and new and traditional ways of publishing, communicating and teaching – digital, on paper and in person.

How to succeed as a first-time manager

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Discover the skills, approach to others, and attitude to continued learning you’ll need to embrace the step up to management level and thrive

How do you succeed as a first-time manager? Start by thinking about your journey to becoming a manager. How is that you are in this situation? Did you apply for a management role? Did your manager volunteer or select you? Has it just happened by accident? It’s worth reflecting on these questions, not least because it’s likely to inform how you are feeling about the opportunity – excited, nervous, perhaps even daunted?

These feelings are perfectly normal. Everyone starting out in management experiences certain anxieties because managing is a challenging job. It’s not just about delivering tasks and rallying a team to hit certain performance goals. It’s fundamentally about developing people to be their best. And getting the best out of people is better achieved by nurturing capability, rather than applying control.

To succeed in management, you’ll need to master new skills – like how to manage a budget, manage organisational change or hire people effectively. You’ll be most successful if you take the time to think about, learn and experience key moments that matter across the employee lifecycle. For example, as a manager you may be required to induct team members, set objectives, and manage performance. You might have to recognise and reward people, deal with employment issues like grievances or redundancy. You might also need to consider how to best train and develop your team, spot talent, and manage motivation.

Of course, all managers need to communicate as well. Sharing company information is just the tip of the iceberg. To succeed as a first-time manager, you’ll need to learn how to inform people about key decisions, give and receive feedback and set expectations. The great news is that are plenty of learning interventions that can help you with this type of knowledge building, and hopefully these will be offered by your employer.

Management practice: learning from experience and from others

Becoming a first-time manager is also about creating a happy and healthy work environment. You’re not just managing tasks; you’re dealing with human feelings and emotions. This means you need to deal with the unexpected and manage situations that may not always appear logical or straightforward.

A good place to start is to remind yourself of your experiences in being managed by others. Which felt good? Have you experienced poor management practice? Knowing what ‘good’ management looks and feels like is a great way to set the bar for your own practice. If you didn’t like being micromanaged, do you think your new team will? If you were motivated by receiving praise for work completed, do you think that others will feel the same. Today, it’s common for managers to take a coaching approach to dealing with people. This means giving people appropriate feedback ‘in the moment’, rather than waiting to conduct a performance review. When you see good behaviour, a job well done – call it out there and then. If someone is a little off course, is struggling, or is perhaps exhibiting behaviours that are less than acceptable, then it’s important to do the same. Take people to one side and help them understand where they might be going wrong – offering ideas and support to get them back on track.

In addition to mastering these techniques and answering these questions, remember to listen and learn from others. Are there more experienced managers you admire? What can you learn from them? Would they be willing to mentor you? If you know other new managers in your organisation it’s also a good idea to get together and share experience. Successful managers aren’t islands – they seek out support when they need it.

Keep tabs on the development of your managerial identity

Take your time to consider how you feel about managing and what you’re learning about yourself as you grow. If something makes you feel particularly nervous, why might that be? Is there a skill gap, or do you lack confidence because of past experience? Always be ready to ask your own line manager for support and be honest with them if you are struggling.

Finally, as you get into managing, keep checking back on how your identity as a manager is developing. Managers who are fair, encouraging, team-oriented, and problem-solvers have a great chance of success. How would you describe you knowledge, skills and character as a manager, and how are things changing as you experience leading your team?

The key with management is not to feel overwhelmed by your responsibilities. Good management takes years of practice, and dealing with tough stuff will make you better, as much as celebrating the successes. If you have a coach or mentor – fantastic, put them to good use. Otherwise, try to retain an open and curious mind that is willing to keep learning and keep smiling.

Elisa Nardi, is a former Chief People Officer, now executive coach, mentor, author, non-executive director and CEO of professional development journaling company, Notebook Mentor.

Feedback is the foundation of high-performing teams

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A true culture of feedback is rarely seen in organisations, yet how can we know what we’re doing well and where we need to improve without it? Julie Nerney, co-author of Own Your Day, offers tips for building feedback into your daily practice

There were so many things I enjoyed about doing my MBA. As I was doing it part time while I worked, I also had lots of opportunities to put the learning immediately into practice. Decades on, I can now see that the one thing that wasn’t covered on the syllabus is something which has been seen to have the biggest impact on teams and organisations: feedback.

That’s right; feedback. Why is it that this one word creates a sense of fear whenever most people hear it? Then there is that slightly sarcastic inference that ‘feedback is a gift’, when the process of providing and receiving it is something that most people dread.

Like all things we do, those that become habitual get easier. And like all habits, that starts with practice. When you think about all areas of management and leadership, some things come so naturally that when you’re asked how you do it, you really have to stop and think about it. It is so well ingrained that it has become a subconscious competence. In others, you’ll have had to practice and learn from experience – especially when things haven’t gone well – and it’s much more of a conscious competence that you step through every time you do it.

The detrimental impact of a lack of feedback

A true culture of feedback is rarely seen in organisations, largely due to the dread that the word creates. This means the habit doesn’t get formed and the viral impact of learning from each other continuously is lost. This is such a shame. Feedback isn’t just a gift, it is – as Boris Becker once said – ‘the breakfast of champions’. How can we know what we’re doing well and where we need to improve if no one tells us? Where are the opportunities for personal development and growth if that insight is denied?

Think about your own experience. How many times have you worked in a team when it’s obvious that someone is being carried by others, yet no one is addressing this? Can you remember the impact? The drain on morale and motivation of the rest of the team. The resentment that builds. The feelings of negativity that this creates towards that individual.

It works the same way for star performers. Those people doing well, but rarely having their contribution acknowledged. Having no opportunities to celebrate their success. No visibility for their achievements in a way that might aid their development or career progression. There is a palpable dip in motivation caused by this, both for the individual and their contribution to the team.

Not only does this have a detrimental impact on the individuals concerned, it also undermines team cohesion. It creates an implicit acceptance of a reduced sense of transparency and openness. An unwillingness to tackle difficult issues. Ultimately, this will start to reduce the value that group of people adds, so that its members are no longer greater than the sum of their parts in whatever endeavour they’re applying themselves to.

Three top tips for building a culture of feedback

If you accept the premise that culture is an accelerant of performance, cultures with excellent feedback practice at their heart are those that make the biggest difference. Conversations between managers and direct reports are richer and more valuable. Successes are acknowledged and captured. Areas for improvement can be coached and supported. Where we’ve seen it work well in all types of teams, there has been an overt conversation between team members as to both the importance of feedback and how they’ll hold each other to account.

So here are three top tips for starting to build feedback into your daily practice and helping others to do the same:

1. Make it frequent, in the moment and brief

Feedback shouldn’t need to be a big conversation which you need to prepare for – that tends to mean that things have gone too long without any feedback. It should look like this: ‘The way that you opened today’s presentation today had real impact, I could see that the example you used really engaged the audience and made the rest of the session flow much more easily’. Or: ‘The way that you opened today’s presentation lacked impact compared with how I’ve seen you do it before; perhaps changing the example didn’t work as well as you thought it might.’ Simple. Short. Constructive. Objective. The best kind of feedback.

2. Stop thinking of feedback as positive or negative

There is no such thing as positive or negative feedback, there is just feedback. Just think of feedback as information which will help someone improve. From good to great. From under par to good enough. The only consideration is to make sure that when the feedback is provided it is done so with positive intent. With kindness. And in the spirit of encouraging learning and growth.

3. Open questions encourage ownership

You can tell people something, as in the example given in the first point. Or you can ask people: ‘What do you think was different about the way you delivered the presentation today?’. When you ask people it forces them to engage in the process of thinking about the question, and deepens ownership of the answer. Providing feedback by asking a series of open questions so that the recipient arrives at the point by themselves is a way of supercharging ownership and action on the back of this information. Sometimes telling people works just fine, other times you need to ask. The best kind of feedback conversations tend to start with a simple tell and, if it is more complex, continues with a series of asks.

If you’ve read this far and are now thinking, ‘yes, that’s all well and good, but I can’t do that,’ you should try to reflect on what it is that is getting in your way. And then do something about it. Getting good at this will accelerate your own performance and that of others.

If the only barrier is yourself and you find it hard to get started, then find someone you trust, share your desire to do this and ask them to hold you to account. Sometimes making a commitment public is all it takes to make a start on developing a new skill.

Julie Nerney is a serial entrepreneur, transformation expert, Chair, and guest lecturer. She holds an MBA from London Metropolitan University.

Together with Diana Marsland, Julie Nerney is also the author of Own Your Day (Practical Inspiration Publishing, 2021) 

BGA members can benefit from a discount on copies of Own Your Day, courtesy of the BGA Book Club. Please click here for details.