Using a foreign language reduces mental imagery

It takes a lot of effort to translate from your mother tongue  to another language. Mental imagery is also known to be a powerful factor in the experience of emotion.

A new study carried out by psychologists at the University of Chicago, came to the conclusion that “our mental images change when using a foreign tongue.”

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

They were all asked to mentally simulate 35 different sensory experiences, feelings of different materials, imagining certain tastes and remembering views. The participants were split into two groups, one group was given instructions in English and the other in Spanish. Each participant was asked to rate how vivid the experience was.

Average vividness ratings of native and foreign language speakers across different modalities (Photo:

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

Researchers did not discover why imagination skills are weaker in a second language, however they did explain that it’s because we draw on past experiences to recreate images, that probably occurred in our mother tongue.

Hayakawa and Keysar concluded: “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.”


Sub Editor: Miranda Tomlinson

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