How speaking another language translates into higher relational intelligence

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Become a better leader, gain a competitive advantage, win and influence people. What do they have in common? All are luxuries that come along with having a high RQ (Relational Intelligence), and if you speak another language, then you’re in luck.

Through a combination of rigorous mental and social conditioning, one of the factors that favours the development of good communication skills, is the process of learning a language. Specifically, how the process of switching from one language to another during our childhood positively impacts our social awareness.

There are social aspects to language - that is an undeniable fact. That is why understanding another person’s perspective requires the constant application and sharpening of our cognitive and social skills, even in adulthood.

“One of the most pressing concerns in daily communication is to understand others and to be understood”.

But did you know that if you can speak more than one language, you are more predisposed to have higher cognitive awareness of another person’s point of view?

In recent years, the concept of social perception in social psychology has enlarged its scope to confirm some conjectures about multilingualism that were yet to be proved empirically. That’s because common assumptions often dictated that multilingualism is advantageous to healthy emotional intelligence.

Although there maybe some truth to that, it’s much more nuanced.  It’s not the impact of being bilingual per se, but rather the whole social package of growing up in a multilingual environment.

An Experiment that showed very surprising results on bilingual children

When researchers held an experiment on bilingual children they concluded that language affects social life; bilingualism gives these children a bigger scope and opportunity to know who  understands which vocabulary, who speaks which language, and who can converse with whom.

“Multilingual exposure may promote effective communication by enhancing perspective taking….For millennia, multilingual exposure has been the norm. Our study shows that such an environment may facilitate the development of perspective-taking tools that are critical for effective communication”.

Samantha Fan, one of the researchers who carried out this experiment noted that, “Language is social and being exposed to multiple languages gives you a very different social experience, which could help children develop more effective communication skills.”

How they conducted the experiment

72 children with a mean age of 5.2 years took part in the study. These children were further subdivided into the following categories:

  1. Monolingual children - can only speak and hear English.

  2. Bilingual children - can speak and understand two languages.

  3. Children who primarily speak English but have regular exposure to speakers of another tongue.

Each child was required to play a game that required moving objects in a grid. The child was able to see all of the objects, but the interviewer on the other side of the grid could not see them.

Secondly, to ensure that children understood that the interviewer could not see the whole grid, the children had to initially play the game from the interviewer's side. Also, once the main experiment began, the instructors had their eyes blindfolded to ensure that they could not lead or influence the child's response through body language (mainly, the eyes).

To begin, they would ask the child to move a toy in the grid and try to correctly interpret the adult’s intended meaning based on three differently sized toy cars - small, medium and large.

The child essentially had to understand that the instructor could not see the small sized car and if the instructor asked the child to move the smallest car, they had to move the medium sized car.

What they found was monolingual children moved the correct object only about 50 percent of the time. This is in stark contrast to bilingual children who understood the instructor's perspective better by having a 77 percent success rate - an almost 30% variation.

Generally, multilingualism increases one’s capacity to better understand others

This should not come as a surprise since identity is very closely related to group membership, and human beings tend to act in accordance with certain group expectations which they are a part of.

What this means is that within any given social setting, we are predisposed to adjust linguistic behaviour accordingly to fit in because language is often a key to social group membership.

In a world that is increasingly globalised, there is a huge likelihood that you will live, work or travel in highly multicultural environments.

What we recommend is that you should take advantage of such life changing moments to feel and experience things differently, because each culture expresses various human experiences in an unique way.

These are excellent opportunities for you to exercise and increase the brain’s cognitive ability by learning a new language. Besides that, you are potentially increasing the size of your social circle since you are more likely to have easier access to a wider range of social groups.

Learning a new language gives you a bigger opportunity to take part in other peoples cultural experiences, which reduces the risk of being close minded. It makes you inclined to understand different cultural sensitivities thus enhancing relational abilities.


Written by Charles Njorge, Lexigo: Hailing from France, Charles is a professional multilingual translator fluent in English, French and Swahili. His eye for detail, love of arts and education in political science is reflected in his writing which highlights and explores different cultures, customs and languages.