Who would’ve thought that learning a second language could help in making better business decisions? According to Boaz Keysar and his team of scientists at the University of Chicago, new research shows that bilingualism, literally, pays off. Through a series of experiments, Keysar’s team conducted a cross-cultural comparison, recreating six experiments on three continents in five different languages (English, Korean, French, Spanish and Japanese). In each experiment, test subjects were asked to choose between two options. The options measured the degree to which a person was risk-averse to loss. In one test, subjects demonstrated they were risk averse to loss (makes sense…who wants to lose?) and in the other test, they showed they were, surprisingly, risk averse to gain. Interestingly, people were risk averse to gain when they were presented with scenarios presented in their first language, and risk averse to loss when the same scenarios were given in their second language. Intuitively, we’d expect the exact opposite. Why the flip-flop? According to Boaz and his team, speaking in a second language requires more emotional distance than speaking in a native tongue. Test subjects were able to think bias-free.
As if this isn’t enough, there are additional perks to bilingualism; one of them being that bilingualism confers protection against the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. According to the National Institute of Health, bilingual patients are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s 4.3 years later and report the onset of symptoms 5.1 years later than monolingual patients. On the other side of the age spectrum, bilingualism also seems to help young children master higher levels of self-control and better understand abstract rules than their monolingual peers.
Greater chances for financial gain, delayed symptoms of Alzheimer’s, and kids with greater self-control…a veritable Three-For-One. Not bad!
For those who’d like to learn another language, and who happen to work in a multinational organization, I’d like to suggest a good starting place. Begin by learning to say “thank you” in each language spoken in your workplace. The benefits far outweigh the time commitment needed to do so. There’s simply nothing like hearing someone say “thank you” in your own language. It helps create a personal relationship that facilitates more open communication. (For a complete list of how to say ‘thank you’ in foreign languages, see: www.omniglot.com/language/phrases/thankyou.htm.) Mastering this simple phrase demonstrates you’ve made the effort to learn something about your colleague/client. It shows you’re taking responsibility for part of the communication process. A priceless message.
That’s right. We have a talent gap in this country, and many people don’t even realize it. The definition of a talent gap, also known as a skills gap, is where there are more jobs than qualified people to fill them. It may not be obvious to everyone, but the United States talent gap is real, big, and getting bigger by the moment.
Where are the jobs? If I travel around the state (in my case, Michigan), I don’t see a whole lot of “Hiring” signs. That’s because the talent gap isn’t in manufacturing or services. It’s in the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math).
According to a recent Manpower survey, only 73% of senior human resource managers said they felt their company had the talent it needed to implement its business strategy. And oh by the way, the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics say that between 2006-2016, the STEM fields represent the industries that are growing the fastest. Yikes!
One of the biggest reasons for the disconnect between available jobs and qualified workers is that, for the first time in history, it’s not looking likely the number of workers entering the U.S. labor force will replace the skills soon to be leaving. Baby boomers, who are en route to retirement, account for more than 50% of our current workforce and 25% of workers with STEM degrees. That leaves a lot of soon to be empty seats in fields that are key to company growth and global competition. In fact, the Department of Homeland Security recognizes this as such a serious problem, they’ve created a complete list of DHS, STEM designated degree programs (PDF, 110k).
But not to worry! There’s no need for alarm bells. The seats will in fact be filled by qualified, hard working, well-educated and talented individuals. The difference, however, between tomorrow’s company landscape and yesteryears’, is that many of our co-workers will be foreign born… and non-native English speakers. Today, international PhD students make up 43% of fellow PhD’s in math, 46% in computer sciences, and 51% in engineering. Many of these students would like to stay and, like generations of immigrants before them, contribute to the economic growth and rich cultural fabric of the U.S. workforce.
This leaves a potential challenge for corporate leadership. With people for whom English is a second language, there’s a risk of ineffective communication and alienation, a recipe for “talent disengagement”. Thankfully, this is avoidable. Here are a few techniques everyone can put into practice that make a huge difference in improving collaboration, camaraderie, and productivity:
- When a co-worker apologizes to you for their “bad English”, tell them: “Your English isn’t bad. You should hear my Chinese, Thai, Spanish, Hindi, fill in the blank!”
- Learn how to say “thank you” in each of the languages your co-workers speak, and say it!
- Be patient. English pronunciation isn’t intuitive. Instead of saying, “What? What did you say?” Try, “Could you repeat that for me. I didn’t understand, and I’d like to.”
These short and sweet techniques go a long way in extending the proverbial handshake. It will make the new business climate a warmer one!
“Metaphors are much more tenacious than facts.”
~ Paul de Man
Believe it or not, despite our varying degrees of poetic ability, we all try our hand with the poet’s most time honored literary device, metaphor. Metaphor is a technique used to transfer the qualities of one word to another. It seems complicated, but really it’s not. For example, does the following sound familiar? “She has a heart of gold.” Or, “her eyes were shining stars.” Of course, the woman’s heart isn’t really made of gold; nor are her eyes actual celestial bodies. But you get the idea that she’s a kind person with bright and alluring eyes. “Eyes” are, in fact, one of our most favorite ‘metaphorical’ words. Here are a few global perspectives (get the pun?):
“When soldiers have been baptized in the fire of a battle-field, they have all one rank in my eyes.” Leopold Bonaparte (French)
“The hardest thing to see is what is in front of your eyes.” Johan Wolfgang von Goethe (German)
“When I look into the future, it’s so bright it burns my eyes.” Oprah Winfrey (English)
A surprising amount of the English language is rooted in metaphorical associations. Anger is linked to fire, as in “inflammatory remarks” or “consumed by rage.” Love is linked to war, as in “love is a battlefield” or “she fled from his advances“. Another common contrast is “up” versus “down,” where “up” is “good” and “down” is “bad.” It’s usually good when we “grow up”, “stand up”, “rise up”, “team up”, “show up”, and “1-up”, but not so good when we “stand down”, “throw down”, “show down”, “burn down”, or “fall down”. We throw our hands in the air when profits “go up”, but our faces drop when profits “go down”.
One way English speakers can help smooth out communication in multicultural contexts is by using literal ways of talking rather than metaphorical, or non-literal, ways. For non native English speakers, phrasal verbs are often the most difficult to understand. A phrasal verb is when we take a word like “make” and add an adjective like “up”. This creates the phrase “to make up”. The reason verb phrases are confusing is because they often have more than one meaning. In this case, “to make up” can mean to fabricate, to re-do, or to reconcile. How about the phrase “to make out”? Can you think of at least three meanings?
Mastering a second language can be a challenge. There’s a lot that goes into it: grammar, vocabulary, reading, writing, and pronunciation. Here’s a tip English speakers can use to make the process easier for others: use as much direct, literal speech as possible. This can take some mindfulness and practice. Americans, including me, love indirect speech. In fact, we use non-literal phrases around the clock, night and day, and 24/7! But if we can get into the habit of using words like “arrive” instead of “show up”, and “give” instead of “hand out”, it’s more likely our message will be understood with ease and confidence. How do we know it’s time to use more poetic license? Listen for when the other person starts using idiomatic expressions and non-literal phrases. When you recognize them… follow their lead!
It’s easy to see how language can influence perspective. For example, the Chinese word for ‘tragedy’ conveys not just a sense of disaster, but also the idea of opportunity. In other words, good can occur out of bad situations. While many people in the West may agree, this particular view is not implicit by definition.
In this month’s issue of Scientific American, Lera Boroditsky takes the connection between language and thinking one step further. In her article, How Language Shapes Thought, Boroditsky gives numerous examples of how the words we use affect not only what we think, but how we think. Specifically, word choice determines the way we process information. That’s new… and her examples are nothing short of fascinating!
For example, an experiment was conducted whereby people from a variety of language backgrounds were asked to find their way out of an unfamiliar building. Which language speakers did the best? An Aboriginal community in Australia who speak a language called Kuuk Thaayorre. Rather than using spatial terms like ‘left’ and ‘right’, they talk in terms of absolute cardinal directions; “the pen is southwest of the paper” or “Sue is sitting north of John” for example. Boroditzky cites that these speakers’ ability to keep track of spatial locations are “better than scientists thought humans ever could have.”
As it turns out, language use seems to affect nearly every area of cognition, from spatial recognition to memory to color identification to the ability to learn mathematics. We used to believe that thinking shapes language. But cross-linguistic differences clearly demonstrate that language shapes thinking. What does this mean for the adult learner? How we process and use new information depends on what, and how, we speak.
This has a profound impact on ‘best practices’ for ESL speakers and students of English pronunciation. As we know, a simple ‘listen and repeat’ methodology doesn’t work. And while requiring students to look at visual cues is important, this is only one piece of accent training. Explicit, verbal explanations of what to do with the tongue, teeth, lips, and jaw are what completes the picture. Why? Because as socio-linguists tell us: “there may not be a lot of adult human thinking where language does not play a role.”
We’re well into the season of summer road-trips and long distance travel. In fact, piling the family into the station wagon and heading for the beach, mountains, or a national park somewhere in between has long been a favorite American summer pastime. And how many of us have played the never ever ending ‘Alphabet Game’ in order to ward off the dreaded question, “Are we there yet?” You know the one… each player searches license plates and road signs for letters of the alphabet, in order, from A to Z. The first one to get to “Z” wins. YAWN!
Here’s an alternative. The name of the game is: ‘Guess the Homonym’. I’m sure many of you are thinking, “Really? Are you serious? How geeky is that!” It may be a little on the nerdy side, but it’s actually a lot of fun.
It goes like this: one person thinks of a word that has many different meanings but sounds exactly the same. (These are called homonyms, and they’re part and parcel of American pronunciation.) The word “nail” is a perfect example. A nail can be something that’s filed down and painted in every hue of color, or a nail is the means by which two pieces of wood are hammered together. The other players then ask a series of “yes” or “no” questions…Is it a noun? Yes. Is it a verb? Yes. Is it red? Yes. Does it have to be red? No. The process of trying to think of possibilities on multiple fronts is more than just a little challenging. To date, each member of my family has now been beaten by children and adults of every age and of more than one language background. (This, by the way, is a great, interactive vocabulary game for teachers of English as a Second Language.)
We’ve been playing this game all summer long and it has never failed to elicit laughs, gasps, and even the occasional, “We’re here already?” Just another example of language being useful AND fun!