Mrs Violet Ross, Japanese and French Teacher and Head of Woolcock House
One language sets you in a corridor for life. Two languages open every door along the way. (Frank Smith)
There is far more to knowing a language than words — one must understand the history, geographical location and climate of its lands, the politics and religion, the art, traditions and popular culture. There are formulas, patterns and problem solving in its grammar, and music in its intonation and pronunciation. Language learners can’t help but gain a much deeper understanding of their own language — the structures, irregularities and origins — by learning a language; it is, as you can see, a thoroughly interdisciplinary exercise. While my personal interest in languages has always been motivated more by the exciting prospect of discovering new lands, ideas and cultures than by any noble desire for intellectual advancement, neurological and social research undertaken in the past decade tells us that bilingualism also has significant benefits in the areas of cognition, emotional intelligence and for engaging in the world of work.
Understanding language is one of the hardest tasks for your brain to accomplish, making it the ultimate brain exercise. Studies have shown that the act of switching between languages is effectively a kind of brain training. Just as regular physical exercise benefits the body biologically, mentally controlling two or more languages provides the brain with cognitive benefits and leads to higher levels of metalinguistic awareness (Hakuta, 1986). The brain’s left hemisphere is more dominant in analytical and logical processes, and the right is more active in emotional and social processes. Language involves both types of functions (Nacamulli, 2015).
Regardless of when you acquire additional languages, being bilingual gives your brain some remarkable advantages. Some are even visible, such as increased blood flow to the brain, greater density of the grey matter that contains most of your brain’s neurons and synapses, and more activity in certain regions when a second language is used. A Swedish study found that, following a period of language training, the MRI scans taken of the participants indicated an increase in the size of the brain’s language centre and the hippocampus, the area responsible for forming, storing and retrieving memories (Alban, n.d.). The effort and attention needed to switch between languages triggers more activity in — and potentially strengthens — the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex. This is the part of the brain that plays a large role in executive function including problem solving, multitasking and maintaining focus while filtering out irrelevant information (Nacamulli, 2015).
Bilingual brains exhibit what is known as ‘joint activation’: the act of seeking relevant words in the target language requires both inhibition and activation functions, or rather, prevents the wrong language from being used over the right one. The result is what is called ‘enhanced attentional control’, which builds concentration and memory (Jones, 2018). As an added bonus, the heightened workout the bilingual brain experiences throughout its life can even delay age-related deterioration — including Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia — by as much as five years.
If these mental benefits weren’t enough, there is evidence that acquiring a language could also make you a better person. Social research has concluded that language learning enhances one’s ability to empathise, or to see a situation from another’s perspective. In speaking another language you don’t just learn new words and sounds, but also new ideas. It is like seeing the world through different eyes (Jones, 2018). The language you speak affects the way you conceptualise your surroundings. There are languages, for example, that have no word for ‘time’, and others that have no exact equivalents for ‘yes’ or ‘no’. It stands to reason that these aspects of the language would affect how those speakers live their lives (Jones, 2018). If you are constantly changing your language to accommodate the cultural context, then you are inevitably going to be well-practised at taking into account other people’s abilities and points of view. This is known as code-switching. Polyglot Roman Emperor Charles V provided an effective, if tongue-in-cheek, illustration of this concept during the 16th century when he declared ‘I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse’ (Jenkin, as cited in Kelmann, n.d.).
Becoming a different person when speaking another language is considered normal. Different languages have their own distinct characteristics and features including intonation, body language and social restraints. Roly Sussex, Emeritus Professor of Applied Language Studies at The University of Queensland, explains that languages give you an extra dimension to yourself. One acquires another personality that was perhaps always there but didn’t know how to express itself (Sussex, 2015). A linguist develops skills to adapt to what is culturally accepted and expected. Some languages demand a humble, respectful approach to social interactions, while others welcome opposing opinions and intellectual debate. As an extension of this, having the ability and willingness to engage with different kinds of people and to understand the world from their perspective can go a long way in better understanding important global problems, such as poverty and inequality. Indeed, Seventeenth Century German writer, Goethe, said, ‘the more languages you know, the more you are human’ (as cited in Corradini, Borthwick, & Gallagher-Brett, 2016).
Social research has further demonstrated the interconnections between culture and language, and has indicated that a person’s world view can actually change depending on what language they are speaking. Japanese–English bilingual women were asked to finish sentences in each language during a study conducted in the 1960s. It was found that the women ended the sentences very differently depending on which language was being used. For example, ‘When my wishes conflict with my family…’ was completed in Japanese as ‘it is a time of great unhappiness’; in English, as ‘I do what I want’. Another example was ‘Real friends should…’, which was completed as ‘help each other’ in Japanese and ‘be frank’ in English (Vince, 2016).
Apart from the pragmatics of making overseas travel easier and more enjoyable, language skills can also make it easier to secure employment and improve international trade prospects. In an increasingly multicultural and multilingual job market, languages are an integral part of the essential 21st-century skill-set ( Corradini, Borthwick, & Gallagher-Brett, 2016). In isolation, language skills may not ensure successful employment, but they may well provide an advantage over a monolingual applicant.
In the realm of world trade, English is fine if you want to buy things, but it may not be the right language to use for people who want to sell things (Williams, 2015). Government statistics show that the UK loses about 3.5 per cent of its GDP every year as a result of a lack of language skills in the workforce. In contrast, other countries are able to exploit their multilingualism as a resource with exchange value in our globalised economy. In Switzerland, for example, the economic value of multilingualism is estimated to be 10 per cent of its GDP as many Swiss businesses can easily operate in several languages (Hogan-Brun, 2017). The notion that Australia is an isolated, monolingual country is a myth. Nearly twenty-eight per cent of Australians were born overseas and it may be surprising to learn that there are some 240 languages spoken in this country. Two thirds of the world’s population are at least bilingual, if not multilingual. It’s true, English is necessary, but is it enough in an increasingly interconnected world? (Sussex, 2015). As philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein asserted, ‘the limit of my language is the limit of my world’ (as cited in Corradini, Borthwick, & Gallagher-Brett, 2016).
It would seem that bilingualism has many benefits. Languages allow us to move more freely and to engage more effectively in our global community, they enhance our cognitive function and emotional intelligence, they generate better job and economic prospects and can even delay the onset of neurodegenerative diseases. So what are you waiting for? With the internet at our fingertips, it is now easier than ever to access a plethora of resources.
Alban, D. (n.d.). The brain benefits of learning a second language [Be Brain Fit]. Retrieved from https://bebrainfit.com/benefits-learning-second-language/
Corradini, E., Borthwick, K., & Gallagher-Brett, A. (2016). Employability for languages: a handbook. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED566902.pdf
Hakuta, K. (1986). Cognitive Development of Bilingual Children. Paper presented at Centre for Language Education and Research University of California, Los Angeles.
Hogan-Brun, G. (2017). The Conversation. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/why-multilingualism-is-good-for-economic-growth-71851
Jones, T. (2018). The Joys and Benefits of Bilingualism. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jan/21/the-joys-and-benefits-of-bilingualism
Kelmann, S. (n.d.). Ilan Stavans and the Translingual Express [Omnibus]. Retrieved from http://www.omni-bus.com/n38/sites.google.com/site/omnibusrevistainterculturaln38/especial/sobre-el-autor/steven-g-kelmann-v-o-ingles.html
Nacamulli, M. (2015, June 23). The benefits of the bilingual brain [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/mia_nacamulli_the_benefits_of_a_bilingual_brain
Stevenson, A. (2016). Learn French? Of Course You Can. n.p.: Learn Languages at Home.
Sussex, R. (2015) [Audio Podcast]. Retrieved from http://www.abc.net.au/local/audio/2015/09/17/4314685.htm
Vince, G. (2016). BBC Future. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20160811-the-amazing-benefits-of-being-bilingual
Williams, M. (2015). The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/apr/14/seven-language-learning-uk-multilinguilism