Updated September 29, 2022

Cognitive abilities abroad

In the first years after I moved to the US, I began to experience a cognitive decline while solving logical tasks, especially when collaborating with others. I imagine that every immigrant faces similar issues, so I wanted to analyze this a bit.

Dogpatch, San Francicso. 2017 Dogpatch, San Francisco. 2017

The obvious factors were the increased brain workload due to the unusually large use of a foreign language and my English proficiency level. I gradually started thinking in two languages, with languages sometimes changing in turn, and at other times both being used simultaneously to construct a single thought. This was quite challenging at times.

My brain was saving on resources: I used simplified alternatives to native words and phrases during the thought process, which sometimes led to longer logical conclusions or even veered towards false trails. The fact that language influences how meaning is constructed made the experience even more challenging.

Language also influences what can be expressed, and some linguists even state that social reality as experienced is unique to one’s language; those who speak different languages would perceive the world differently.

Eur J Ageing. 2010

What's interesting is that listeners of non-native speakers also have to adjust "by increasing their reliance on top-down processes," hence extracting less information. Some listeners are more "trained" to listen and process your speech than others. This sometimes plays a significant role in collaboration.

Those with relatively high working memory also increase their reliance on context to anticipate the speaker's upcoming reference and are less likely to notice lexical errors in non-native speech, indicating that they take less information from the speaker's language.

Frontiers in Psychology. 2015