Bilingual Brain: Why You Should Start Learning a Second Language Today
Why bother learning a second language other than simply because it’s cool?
You might ‘have to’ because your job or education demands it from you or maybe your parents expect it.
Having a bilingual brain could help you discover much more of what the world has to offer and it might serve you in very useful ways you haven’t thought of before.
So does learning a new language, bring more to the table other than a romantic allure?
Those are the dots we’re going to connect.
What Happens Inside the Bilingual Brain?
For most of us, the path to becoming fluent in any foreign language stops after the mandatory ‘proficiency tests’ in school. At least this is largely the case if English is your primary language.
If you later decide to pick up the scraps leftover from school or even try out your luck at a new exciting and completely foreign language it’s because learning a new language is cool.
It’s cool if you can speak more than one language, but that’s where it stops, right?
The feeling is that speaking another language is nice but for most people, in life, it’s extra.
You probably don’t think knowing more than one language is somehow going to change your life.
It might make you slightly more interesting at dinner parties and open up a few extra vacation options outside the package group tour but it couldn’t possibly have a larger impact on, say, how you understand and experience things… right?
Well, It Does Change The Way You Think
There’s a lot of studying on the bilingual brain that points at learning a second language changes the way you think.
People speaking more than one language has a tendency to think differently about problems and decisions compared to monolingual speakers.
Whenever facing a new decision bilingual speakers are more likely to reflect upon their options and be less affected by their emotions about it. You have an easier time just looking at the facts.
Thinking about a problem in a second language is like having access to a second understanding. It allows you to reframe it in an entirely new context and view it from several new angles. So this effectively makes you better at making decisions.
For example, you may have strong emotional ties to what certain words or phrases mean in your native language, without even being aware of it.
A while back I was in a job where the time had come to ask for a raise or stick with my current salary.
It was completely appropriate given the time I had been there and the extra responsibilities I had been taking for a while.
Still, I was pondering the decision like crazy.
Just the connection to the word ‘raise’ brought up all sorts of strong emotions. What was fair to ask for? How should I ask? What if my boss asked me to justify why?
Strangely enough, switching to a second language with the exact same problem at hand changed my emotions about it. It was as if I had just asked a close friend to give an outside perspective. No strings attached, no preconceived emotions. It became an almost entirely different thing.
In my case the second language was German.
The word for getting a raise, in German is, “Gehaltserhöhung”. While I understand that word just as well as I do the word ‘raise’ in English, the German context didn’t come with all the perceived awkwardness and fear of how/why/what?
Instead, thinking about the scenario in a second language, created a distance and a new angle that made me see it without all the emotional pressure. This helped in making the facts stand out and arrive at the point that, yes, I should go on with a decision to negotiate a raise.
Eventually, it paid off. But had I ‘only’ been able to think about it in my native language context, I might have come to a different decision.
Which Leads to How We Perceive the World
The scenario above likely went the way it did because, “how we think”, is linked to the cognitive functions in our brains and these areas specifically get activated and stimulated differently for bilinguals compared to monolinguals.
So, whatever is cognitive function and why does it matter?
Well, it’s essentially a highly refined management system of your mental abilities. It gets activated whenever you need to evaluate or learn something new or access memories. In short, it’s how your brain thinks.
People speaking multiple languages conceive the world around them in multiple contexts, even on a subconscious level. Because of this, they stretch and exercise the part of their brain that is required whenever learning a new skill or adapting to a new situation.
What happens in the bilingual brain or for someone speaking multiple languages is that the realm relating to cognitive function becomes more familiar.
This especially relates to solving problems, directing attention and focus, and avoiding distractions. In bilingual infants, this has been shown by their ability to switch between different tasks and direct their focus to new relevant points.
When juggling multiple languages you apply all these functions more or less constantly. The bilingual brain is firing on all cognitive cylinders so to speak.
Now, all these abilities aren’t exclusive to the bilingual brain. Any single language speakers can stimulate their cognitive ability through practice.
The point is, that this part of your brain is activated every time you face a challenge and depending on how nimble and strong you are in this area, the easier or harder you’ll find it to manage the challenge.
For monolinguals, the cognitive part of the brain is simply a road less traveled.
What matters is that the number of connections between neurons, (the cells that make up your brain), is increased with learning a second language.
You can think of it as a ski slope that you run down several times a week. Each time carving a track with your skies that you can follow later on.
This way the route stays fresh and fast. If you happen to miss a day here or there and the tracks get covered in new snow, you still know the slope well enough that you can carve out a new track again, in no time.
In comparison, the monolingual brain only runs down that same mountain slope a few times a year. You can imagine it takes much longer to get back into the drift of things.
What It Takes To Become Bilingual And What It Means For Learning More Languages
Do bilinguals have an edge over monolinguals when it comes to learning more languages?
In a word, yes.
Bilinguals aren’t necessarily smarter than monolinguals but when it comes to learning another language on top of a second language they probably are smarter.
Following the idea of the ski slope, taking on a new language is going to activate the same pathways in your brain that you have from the languages you already know.
In the bilingual brain, there’s already a practice going on every single day stretching the cognitive fabric that you can utilize to learn yet another language.
This foundation is one of the reasons bilinguals learn a new language faster than someone speaking only one language.
Another reason is that their brainy nimbleness makes it more likely for bilinguals to adapt to new environments and situations. Something that’s referred to as the ‘ plasticity’ of the brain.
This also makes you more adventurous and risk-seeking in your language learning which is great for throwing yourself into useful practice and make the mistakes that are so important along the way in order to advance and become fluent.
It helps overcome that fear of using a new language which ironically is one of the biggest obstacles on the way to becoming a fluent speaker.
Luckily this plasticity and cognitive brain power can be exercised and made stronger.
Simply by studying and learning a new language , you’re running tracks and connecting neurons that will help you learn that third and fourth language, or beyond.
It’s important to note that monolinguals can do all these same things, so don’t get too discouraged. But, sorry, bilinguals still get to it easier.
Another thing to remember is when learning a new language it also depends on your starting point as well as how close your primary language is to the one you want to study.
For example, if you’re a native French speaker then taking on Italian might not be a huge leap.
If you already speak a tonal language then taking on Mandarin would likely come easier for you.
For native English speakers, becoming fluent in a second language roughly looks like this.
Keep in mind this is if you don’t know any language other than English.
Depending on which approach you take to learning a new language, such as finding a way to become immersed and deciding what your goals for that new language are, this will also affect how much time you need to spend before fluency.
For anyone with a bilingual edge when it comes to adding more languages under your belt, there are generally three types of bilinguals.
The first is the compound bilingual and is someone who’s learning two languages in the same environment.
This means that their experiences and interactions with the world are constantly related back to an understanding from both languages, in equal measure.
It would typically be someone who’s born into a bilingual home and use both languages simultaneously for any situation.
While it could be someone learning two new languages simultaneously in adult life, the point is you have one common understanding even though the word or phrase is different in each language.
Second is the coordinate bilingual who learns two languages in different environments.
They’re working with two lingual concepts but in separate places. Usually, one language is spoken at home and the other at school.
This way each language has its own meaning and understanding and is applied to different situations. Unlike the compound bilingual who are more likely to mix the two together.
The third type is the subordinate bilingual who has one language as the absolute dominating one.
This is typically seen in first-generation immigration where the second language gets filtered through the primary language in order to create an understanding.
When Are You Fluent Enough To Be Considered Bilingual?
All different types of bilinguals can become fully proficient in a second language but determining when someone is bilingual raises the question about fluency.
There are tables that rate language proficiency at different levels.
But for these people , it could be anything from someone telling you that you’re bilingual, to the feeling of being attached to more than one culture and seeing it as more of an identity.
So what do you think it takes to be considered bilingual?
This is debated in a variety of criteria. Speaking in both languages with no effort, having the right accent, expressing yourself freely.
Some people even say you need to grow up that way, (like the compound or coordinate bilingual), because there’s a cultural attachment as well.
Maybe you should be able to seamlessly switch between both languages, (much like the cognitive function of switching between different tasks.)
One could even suggest that there are different levels of bilingualism.
Just because you have a different accent or don’t master both languages to match a native speaker that certainly doesn’t mean you can’t be fluent.
I’d say it depends on what you wish to use the language for.
Whether you can manage a casual conversation, read a book or speak perfectly like a native speaker you shouldn’t stress too much about how close you are to developing a bilingual brain.
The important part is that you don’t let the barrier of ‘ getting to the right level’ stand in your way of becoming bilingual.
If you’re now thinking; “You can’t take such a casual approach to bilingualism.” Think about the ski slope and how the bilingual brain show activity even from ‘lower’ levels of fluency.
Looking at how your brain works when exercising two different languages suggests that your cognitive abilities are acting bilingual or at least become activated towards that pattern.
As neurologist Judy Willis refers to this; “neurons that fire together, wire together”.
Develop Your Bilingual Brain
Speaking a second language lets you perceive the world differently. You gain another cultural platform for understanding both the world and yourself better and you might even become more likely to fight off dementia and Alzheimer’s symptoms later in life.
Getting on the second language train doesn’t have to be that hard and since it’s a way of keeping your brain sharp, why not?
To make things even worse, the amount of gray matter, (it’s what makes up the number of neurons and connections in your brain), gets larger in size for bilinguals.
That’s pretty freaky if you ask me.
Why waste more time thinking about it. Get out there and start growing your brain today, (literally).
You can start with Beelinguapp for reading and practicing pronunciation.