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Can Learning Another Language Boost Your Empathy?

Learning to speak a second language is a crash course in parsing ambiguity and decoding others’ intentions–and that’s a good thing.

Can Learning Another Language Boost Your Empathy?
[Photo: © 2010 by Tomasz Sienicki via Wikimedia Commons]

There’s a Czech proverb that says, “As many languages you know, as many times you are a human being.” Like other multilingual speakers, I’ve often thought of myself as a different person whenever I speak a different language.

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But this feeling has less to do with the structure of the languages themselves than with the personal associations I have with each one. Until I started working at Waze, my use of Spanish was limited to home. So it’s always reminded me of warm meals, family time, soccer, and parties. My use of English, meanwhile, has been the de facto language of my professional life. I may feel like different people, but the reality is that I’m the same me, using different idioms depending on the context, and my associations flow from that experience–but not the other way around.

For decades (centuries, really), scholars and scientists have debated whether and to what extent the language you speak may condition your thought, a concept that’s often boiled down to a question like, “Can you entertain an idea about something you don’t have a word for?” In more recent years, the prevailing answer among researchers has ranged roughly from, “Of course you can, that’s a silly question,” to, “Well, for the most part.” But even though it’s largely accepted that our spoken languages don’t completely determine what we think, they do influence how we think (and feel and behave) in subtler ways–including how and when we experience empathy.

Reading Between The Lines–No Matter What Language They’re In

If Spanish won’t turn you into Lionel Messi, then what’s the point? Forget for a second that Spanish will help you work in Latin America, or that Mandarin will make you a better host for your Chinese counterparts. Some researchers now believe that knowing a second language–any second language–can increase your capacity for understanding and empathy.

We tend to think that language, when used well, is quite precise. But as Lane Greene, author of You Are What You Speak, told me, “Language is more of a fuzzy pattern recognition between two people.” More often than not, we have to look past what a person said to understand what they mean, even if we don’t realize we’re doing so.

The theory that multilingualism increases empathy was tested in 2015 by a team of researchers at the University of Chicago. The results from that study suggest multilingual children are better at understanding other people, even when the words they use are imprecise. The researchers presented kids ages 4 to 6 with three toy cars–a small, medium, and large one. Some of the children spoke just one language, others were bilingual, and a third group had been “exposed” to a second language but weren’t yet fluent.

At one point in the experiment, the researchers presented the cars so that the smallest one was hidden from their own view, while the children could see all three–then said, “I see a small car” and asked the child to move it. The bilingual and language-“exposed” children, knowing which cars the experimenter could see, moved the medium-sized car–the smallest one from the point of view of the adult giving them the instructions–three out of four times. Their monolingual counterparts did so only half the time. In other words, the children who were familiar with more languages were better at inferring the researchers’ intentions, even when their words came up short.

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“Early language exposure is essential to developing a formal language system but may not be sufficient for communicating effectively,” the researchers wrote. “To understand a speaker’s intention, one must take the speaker’s perspective. Multilingual exposure may promote effective communication by enhancing perspective taking.”

The Benefit Of The Doubt Is A Universal Language

Language learning may encourage empathy in other ways, too. Anyone who’s studied a foreign language will remember how challenging it was at first. So when we meet someone who doesn’t speak our native tongue fluently, we may be more likely to put ourselves in their shoes and forgive their mistakes. Actually, one would hope this benefit of the doubt would extend to lots of situations, not just those where there’s a language barrier.

The “principle of charity” actually has deep roots in the history of philosophy. It’s the idea that we should interpret ambiguous claims or sentences in the most positive way possible in order to allow the conversation or debate to continue. As a friend of mine memorably summed it up recently, it means we should “listen to understand, not to respond.” After all, we’re dealing with imperfect people speaking imprecise languages–no matter how fluently–so ambiguity and uncertainty should be taken for granted.

In fact, “charity” may be a bit of a misnomer since it suggests you’re absorbing some kind of cost for another person’s benefit. But it’s actually in your interest, too, to assume that whoever you’re speaking with is rational and competent. The principle of charity encourages you to suspend judgment until you get a deep enough understanding, not just of what the person said, but what they meant.

Of course, you don’t need to be multilingual in order to be philosophically charitable. But those who speak another language may understand and accept ambiguity more readily than others. That’s valuable these days. Social media has made many of us trigger-happy. We’re quicker than ever to retweet, share, or cry outrage. It’s never been easier to have (and broadcast) an instant reaction to something rather than to process it, ask questions, and try to get to the bottom of what somebody really means, in between and beneath their actual words.

Learning another language, it seems, may nudge us into territory where we can’t help but slow down–where we need to seek understanding and commonalities in order to communicate. Greene points out that the results of studies like the one at the University of Chicago haven’t been successfully replicated, but says there’s other promising research to suggest that multilingualism promotes empathy and even humility.

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“People use words differently, so you learn to attune to the person and situation” when you speak more than one language, he says. And ultimately, the empathy and humility this teaches is language-blind. “The charity economy only works if everyone accepts the same currency.”


Eric M. Ruiz is a New York City–based writer from Modesto, California. He helped launch Waze Ads in Latin America and now focuses on exploring and writing about the differences that make us the same. He thinks in English but hugs in Spanish. Follow him on Twitter at @EricMartinRuiz.

About the author

Eric M. Ruiz is a New York City–based writer from Modesto, CA.

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