How does knowing more than one language affect our brains? Does it make our minds disoriented or sharper? Let’s find out.
On the first day of my German language course, the teacher wrote his name on the board and started introducing himself in German. I sat there not understanding a word he was saying, and as I looked around the class, we all had blank looks on our faces. Our first day consisted of a combination of hand gestures and helping each other understand words that were completely alien to us.
A week into the course, I began to understand a few words; I went from staring hard at the teacher to get an idea of what he was saying to recognizing what he was talking about. It was fascinating how fast my brain learned to process sounds into words.
This revelation got me thinking, how are our brains affected by the knowledge of more than one language? And does our way of thinking and behavior change from one language to another?
In the UAE, many of us are bilingual, and a big portion of the population can easily switch between Arabic and English. There are those who believe that because of this we are losing the ability to be stronger Arabic speakers, and that knowing more than one language weakens our ability in how well we use each language. While this might be true in some cases, there is also the reality that being bilingual enhances the way our brain functions and gives us an advantage over monolingual speakers.
Professor Ellen Bialystok, a distinguished researcher in the field of psychology at the University of Toronto, conducted a study on the effects of bilingualism on the mind. Bialystok’s research shows that bilingual children develop a better ability to concentrate and tune out distractions and that learning a second language at a young age shows signs of stronger cognitive abilities and sharper observational skills.
There have also been experiments conducted to determine if our brain processes languages differently and how that affects our thinking and behavior. An experiment conducted by psycholinguistic scientist Susan Tripp on English-Japanese bilingual women showed that when asked to answer questions or complete sentences the women responded differently in each language. When asked to finish the sentence “When my wishes conflict with my family…” in Japanese the women replied with “it is a time of great unhappiness” but in English their response was “I do what I want”. What these results demonstrated was that when responding in Japanese these women thought like Japanese and responded in a way that was Japanese. Yet their response in English, like the language, was more direct and to the point.
Personally, I have always felt that I have a slightly different personality depending on what language I am using. At my previous job in the UAE, I worked with a variety of people that came from different nationalities. When meeting a representative of an entity that wanted to strictly communicate in Arabic, I would always be very cautious of using the proper titles and addressing the present company in proper Arabic. This caused me to be more reserved and eager to finish the business at hand. Meanwhile, when I had meetings that were conducted in English, I felt more comfortable to start the meeting with small talk and have a somewhat less formal approach while conducting business. Though most of the time this switch would occur unconsciously, my brain would dictate my behavior based on what language I was using.
Now that I am living in Germany and it is a necessity for me to know the language, my brain makes an extra effort to process all the new words and sentences I am learning. I am still in the very early stages of learning the German language, but even my knowledge of simple sentences is expanding my mind because of the extra work it now does to construct sentences in German. When ordering food at a restaurant or making an appointment, I will first think of what I want to say in Arabic or English and then translate it in my head to German and then try to sound as confident as I can be speaking German out loud.
It’s a process and hard work but a journey that I am excited to be on. I truly believe having the ability to understand and switch between different mediums of communication is an advantage that should be encouraged. If you get the opportunity to learn a new language, take it and push your brain to the potential it most definitely has.
Bialystok, E. (1999). Cognitive Complexity and Attentional Control in the Bilingual Mind. Child Development , 70(3)636-644 .
Vince, G. (2016, August 7). Why being Bilingual works wonders on your brain. Retrieved from The Gaurdian: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/aug/07/being-bilingual-good-for-brain-mental-health