Research shows people who speak another language are more utilitarian and flexible, less risk-averse and egotistical, and better able to cope with traumatic memories

David Robson:

As Vladimir Nabokov revised his autobiography,Speak, Memory, he found himself in a strange psychological state. He had first written the book in English, published in 1951. A few years later, a New York publisher asked him to translate it back into Russian for the émigré community. The use of his mother tongue brought back a flood of new details from his childhood, which he converted into his adopted language for a final edition, published in 1966.

“This re-Englishing of a Russian re-version of what had been an English re-telling of Russian memories in the first place, proved to be a diabolical task,” he wrote. “But some consolation was given me by the thought that such multiple metamorphosis, familiar to butterflies, had not been tried by any human before.”

Over the past decade, psychologists have become increasingly interested in using such mental metamorphoses. Besides altering the quality of our memories, switching between languages can influence people’s financial decision-making and their appraisal of moral dilemmas. By speaking a second language, we can even become more rational, more open-minded and better equipped to deal with uncertainty. This phenomenon is known as the “foreign language effect” and the benefits may be an inspiration for anyone who would like to enrich their mind with the words of another tongue.