The Bilingual Brain: Curse or Blessing

“Around the world, more than half of people – estimates vary from 60 to 75 per cent – speak at least two languages.” And that reminds me of a joke:

Do you know what you call a person who speaks three languages? Trilingual. How about a person who speaks two languages? Bilingual. And do you know what we call a person who speaks only one language? An American.

In my part of America, the vast majority of the people I know are monolingual. No fault of their own, of course, this country [the Northern half, at least] is largely a linguistic island.

Nonetheless, having been somewhat bilingual in Japanese (even if years ago), I often feel a large difference when relating to monolinguists. Often I feel the blessing of richness another language offers me, but at other times, thinking in another language estranges me from normal monolinguists.

Oh to be normal, to feel what the crowd feels.

I don’t want to get lost trying to define “bilingual”, but whatever it is, it certainly is not even close to what any American High School or even college student gets after studying four years of a language. Instead, if a second language possess you, competing with your mother tongue for thought space, dreams and feelings, then you are in the bilingual realm.

In this  fun Mosaic Science article , from which my first quote was taken, Gaia Vince explains why monolinguists and bi/multilinguists experience their worlds differently. As an enticer, below are a few quotes, which I organized into three sections.  I also added my comments in brackets. After reading, if you are bilingual, tell us your experience. When is bilingualism a blessing or a curse for you?

1. Our Brains built to be Bilingual

  • We can get some sense of how prevalent multilingualism may have been from the few hunter-gatherer peoples who survive today. “If you look at modern hunter-gatherers, they are almost all multilingual,” says Thomas Bak, a cognitive neurologist who studies the science of languages at the University of Edinburgh. “The rule is that one mustn’t marry anyone in the same tribe or clan to have a child – it’s taboo. So every single child’s mum and dad speak a different language.”
  • Our Brains are built to be multilingual.
  • In Aboriginal Australia, where more than 130 indigenous languages are still spoken, multilingualism is part of the landscape.

2. We taste the world differently using another Language because it is soaked in culture.

  • Being so bound up with identity, language is also deeply political. [For this reason, history is replete with stories of languages being banned.  We are blind to our identity preferences. So language is like religion, tied to identity. Really, the thing is, the a large part of our minds, our selves, is always grabbing after identity.]
  • Ask me in English what my favourite food is, and I will picture myself in London choosing from the options I enjoy there. But ask me in French, and I transport myself to Paris, where the options I’ll choose from are different. So the same deeply personal question gets a different answer depending on the language in which you’re asking me. This idea that you gain a new personality with every language you speak, that you act differently when speaking different languages, is a profound one.
  • [The -ing grammar in English] makes English speakers much less likely than German speakers to assign a goal to an action when describing an ambiguous scene. [In Japanese, the pronoun if often excluded in sentences, making it much more vague than English. Americans, who whose Japanese is weak, pepper their sentences with ugly, direct, loud pronouns [or so a Japanese speaker would perceive it.]

3. Bilingual Brain are different from Monolingual Brains

  • These different mindsets are continually in conflict , however, as bilingual brains sort out which language to use.
  • To choose between languages, the ACC in the frontal cortex must be strong, The consequence in bilinguals is shown by ”
    A steady stream of studies over the past decade has shown that bilinguals outperform monolinguals in a range of cognitive and social tasks from verbal and nonverbal tests to how well they can read other people. Greater empathy is thought to be because bilinguals are better at blocking out their own feelings and beliefs in order to concentrate on the other person’s.”
  • In fact, says cognitive neuropsychologist Jubin Abutalebi, at the University of San Raffaele in Milan, it is possible to distinguish bilingual people from monolinguals simply by looking at scans of their brains. “Bilingual people have significantly more grey matter than monolinguals in their anterior cingulate cortex [ACC], and that is because they are using it so much more often,” he says.
  • [With this added ACC], bilingualism seems to protect against dementia.  The bilinguals showed symptoms of Alzheimer’s some four to five years after monolinguals with the same disease pathology,
  • However, it is no good simply to have learned a little French at school. The effect depends on how often you use your bilingual skill.
  • Bilingualism can also offer protection after brain injury.


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