Some people only know their mother-tongue. Others know ten languages. But regardless of how many, everybody has learned one (reading, writing, speaking, and/or gesturing). But what does it do to your brain? To your psyche? Knowing different languages can be way different from playing different instruments, or memorizing all the math formulas. So sit down and buckle in while I take you on one-head of a ride through this concept!
Funny enough, the first thing that got me thinking about this topic was the 2016 movie called Arrival. In a nutshell, a woman needs to learn an alien language after a few land on Earth so that world leaders don’t attack them. Pretty cool, right? But the interesting thing about this movie is that it showed what it did to this woman’s mentality. Because the alien language had a totally different structure of language than anybody had ever seen before, it completely changed her way of thinking. Timelines in her mind were no longer past, present, and future: she experienced them all in the present. But could this theoretically happen in real life, or is it just well thought out science-fiction?
The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis
Basically, the movie showcases an interesting phenomena called the ‘Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis’. It says that speaking in one language can make you think differently than when you are using another. On the surface, this makes sense: we have different words and different cultures associated, so of course it shouldn’t all be the same. But many people disagree on this because it challenges the way we interact with the world and each other: we translate languages all the time, yet we can still communicate fine. However, I believe that many things can be lost in translation.
This hypothesis has also been dubbed as linguistic relativity, which better explains this: a person’s thoughts and worldview is relative to the language and how it is used. A famous example is one of the Inuktitut and the English language. In English, we only have one word for snow. Yet in Inuktitut, a language that formed in the north, they have 40-50 words for snow, all for a specific type.
So how does this affect the brain?
Believe it or not, being multilingual can change the actual structure of the brain! It also has some additional benefits, and being multilingual changes the way a person processes information.
Knowing/learning a second language can lead too more grey-matter in your left inferior parietal cortex. (near the back of the brain). Using more tan one language is more cognitively challenging, so specific areas of the brain must strengthen themselves and their connections to other parts of the whole structure. I can also increase the white matter (connecting gray matter, the path between the neurons) for the same reason.
The way the these brains work is different as well. They have a heightened cognitive ability, and it is active even when no language is involved. The sensitivity to auditory stimuli also rises, so they can process their surroundings better. Multilingual also have better creative problem solving skills because they have already trained their brains to think in different way from all the different languages. They are also better at multitasking and have a longer concentration span than others. Their brains are truly wired differently!
More benefits of being multilingual are staying mentally healthy into old age, better decision-making skills, and helping in all other areas of learning.
From the psychological to the neurological perspective, the science of languages never cease to amaze me!
For more information, see: The benefits of a bilingual brain – Mia Nacamulli (Ted-Ed) and How language shapes the way we think, by Lera Boroditsky (Ted Talk)