Thinking in a second language hinders imagination, study finds

Our ability to conjure up mental images is impaired when not thinking in our mother tongue

Rachel Hosie
Monday 12 February 2018 11:26

As anyone who’s ever learned a foreign language will know, thinking in anything other than your mother tongue requires a lot of effort.

But according to a new study, doing so actually drains the brain of some of its ability to conjure up mental imagery.

The research, carried out by psychologists at the University of Chicago, concluded that “our mental images change when using a foreign tongue.”

Researchers Sayuri Hayakawa and Boaz Keysar tested 359 people, all of whom were native English speakers who also spoke Spanish.

They were asked to mentally simulate 35 different sensory experiences, for example, imagining certain tastes, feelings of materials or views. Each participant was then asked to rate how vivid the experience was.

However, the participants were split in two - half were given instructions in English and the other half in Spanish.

In six out of eight categories, the people who performed the task in their second language reported less vivid mental images than those who did so in their mother tongue.

The two senses that bucked the trend, however, were taste and smell - the researchers suggest that gustatory and olfactory images may have been more vivid in Spanish due to the rich connotations of Spanish food.

The researchers noted that there was a chance participants were subconsciously self-reporting their mental images as less vivid in their second language, so they conducted a second experiment.

307 different people, all of whom were native Mandarin speakers also fluent in English, were tasked with completing a word test that would require visualisation.

For example, participants were shown the words “carrot,” “pen” and “mushroom” and asked which had the most different shape.

Half were given the words in Mandarin, and the other half in English - those using their second language performed worse than those given the words in their mother tongue.

To test for error, the researchers repeated the test with the same participants, but used images of the items rather than words, thus no longer requiring visualisation. The results maintained that accuracy was worst when participants used their second language and needed to use visualisation.

The researchers did not discover why imagination skills are weaker in a second language, however they suggest that it’s because we draw on past experiences (that probably happened in our mother tongue) to conjure up images.

Attempting to tap into these memories may be hindered when doing so in a foreign language.

“Over the last few years, there has been growing evidence that the use of a foreign language affects many aspects of our experiences ranging from emotional responding to decision-making,” Hayakawa and Keysar concluded.

“Here we provide some evidence that such phenomena may occur because the world imagined through a foreign language is less vivid than through a native tongue.”

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in