Shawn L. Bird

Original poetry, commentary, and fiction. All copyrights reserved.

language & brain May 23, 2010

The ability to speak a second language isn’t the only thing that distinguishes bilingual people from their monolingual counterparts—their brains work differently, too. … A new study published in Psychological Science reveals that knowledge of a second language—even one learned in adolescence—affects how people read in their native tongue. The findings suggest that after learning a second language, people never look at words the same way again. 

Wenner, Melinda. “The Neural Advantage of Speaking 2 Languages.” Scientific American Mind.  January 2010.

Melinda Wenner’s article in Scientific American fascinates me for many reasons.  I have friends whose children were born in bilingual environments, and it has always amazed me how  fluidly these children move between languages.  It has frequently been observed that students in French Immersion tend to be among the strongest in the school. Is this because they were already so, or have their brains been improved by second language learning?

I started learning my second language (French) when I was in grade 4.  I loved it!  It was like learning a special code, with the advantage that other people around the word could understand it, too.  In grade 12 I added a Spanish course and did very well at that at the time but, unfortunately before I could solidify it, I headed off as an exchange student to Finland, and before long even French was a struggle as my brain re-tuned to Finnish instead.  I was in awe of the students in my Finnish class.  We were the language stream, and besides Finnish (‘Äidenkieli’ or ‘mother tongue’) they took courses in Swedish, English, German, French and/or Russian.  How on earth did they manage it?  By third rotation when we came back to French class I couldn’t speak it properly anymore (I could read and understand without difficulty, but the Finnish pushed the French out of the  speaking centre).  Happily, both French and Finnish happily co-reside in my brain these days.  

While I was learning Italian earlier this year, I kept finding connections to other words I knew in Spanish, French or English which led to epiphanies of word meaning.   One epiphany resulted from learning the Italian word nebia which means fog.  Suddenly I had a whole new understanding of the English word nebulous.  While pulling on a door and reading the French tirer (to pull) I realised the connection to the word on Italian doors: tirare.  Do these words relate to the English verb to tire?  After all, it’s exhausting work to be pulling something.  What about the Italian word for ‘left’ sinistra?  The underhanded swordsman using the left hand was definitely sinister to his opponents.  All these additional layers of meaning start appearing as you read when you know other languages.

When one learns another language, or particularly several other languages, one begins to see the complex web that strings them together. If one opens up to the conceptual words that we don’t have in English, our world view expands even further.  For example, Finnish has the word sisu which connotes pride, courage, and fortitude.  The Finns claim sisu is what allowed them to decimate the Russians with 10:1 losses and led to  the only war-time settlement the Russians ever negotiated to stop the Winter War of 1939.   (It’s also the name of their strongest salt-licorice, which is fitting because it definitely takes some fortitude to eat it!)

I have enjoyed studying various other languages for interest sake over the years, although I gained no significant fluency.  I studied Esperanto, Japanese and most recently Italian.  It was particularly entertaining to be sitting at a restaurant table in Italy a couple months ago with my Finnish host parents and my Canadian husband, speaking English to him, Finnish to them, and Italian to the waitress!  It was especially clear to me then what this article suggests- speaking other languages is definitely a brain work out!


15 Responses to “language & brain”

  1. […] One of the values of learning another language, is the enlightenment it provides to your own language.  I have links to an article about this in a previous blog post. […]

    • Having a working knowledge of three languages, English, French, and German, I sometimes feel like I’ve got a super-language master key, at least for European languages! Since learning a second and then a third language, adding Spanish was super-easy. Weirdly enough, it works even for non-European languages! I studied a bit of St’at’imcets, the local language of the aboriginal people around Lillooet. It’s a Salishan language – and so is Lekwungen, the language of the people from around Victoria. Sure enough, I can see similar word chunks — things that mean “people”, “land”, “thank you” etc. even though my knowledge of even St’at’imcets is rudimentary at best. It’s like having x-ray glasses for words. Your brain starts looking for the patterns and the similarities. Thanks for getting me to think about it again.

  2. luiskrl Says:

    I agree with you, when you learned another language you start to see the “tangled web” that join a language with others. I’m spanish and I’m currently studying english philology, also i have studied german and some french, and for instance when you start to read something in other language, you look carefully for translation and the same happens with your mother tongue translated in other languages, they all are different but they all give us a more insightful view of language itself, and not only that, it also helps us to choose and say or write the more accurate words in each context. It is also interesting the Saphir-Wolf hypothesis that claims that we (everyone) make the world through language, and that could explain the difficulty or ease that some people may have in their own enviroment according to their knowledge of language (or lack of it).
    Greetings from Spain!

    • Thank you for coming by, Luis. I spent a lovely 2 weeks in Spain (Barcelona) March 2012. We were quite impressed with Spain! I read/understand Spanish relatively well because I am quite fluent in French, and have studied both Italian and Spanish previously. It frustrates me that I can’t speak though, since I can’t find the Spanish words in my brain! I will have to try to learn. My daughter lived in Barcelona and she is a fluent Spanish speaker, and she understands Catalan TV shows she watches online. My favourite story from her is when she was in high school and her friends would all be sitting together talking at lunch, one speaking Catalan, another Spanish, another Italian, another French, and each understood the others, though each was speaking his/her own language. Our North American students have a terrible time imagining such a thing! It’s one of my favourite things about being in Europe, that facility to switch languages. 🙂

  3. hakariconstant Says:

    When I was in high school, I started teaching myself to read, write and speak Japanese, starting with the katakana alphabet. Stuff in life took my attention away from this pursuit, but its a dream of mine to fully learn it someday. Over a thousand symbols/characters in the language to learn, which I’d love to do. The complexity and idea of reading symbols, like ancient Egyptian Heirglyphics, sounds like fun. Also it would allow me to read Japanese comics (manga) in their original language, and understand Anime without english subtitles or english voice dubbing… which was originally my motivatons for learning the language. lol

  4. flowerpoet Says:

    I have a cousin who has a translation business in Paris, France. (She also co-founded Translators Without Borders.) When visiting her, I was fascinated by how well so many people I overheard in conversation had the ability to flow from one language to another to another seamlessly. I only speak the English language and the Language of Poetry with any fluency. I find the latter to be the most effective and richly imaginative form of human communication of all universal languages. Thanks so much for showing the connectedness between the languages you mentioned. Interesting stuff!

    • Speaking additional languages is so helpful for opening the mind to new concepts. It’s fascinating to explore words that don’t translate, because they reveal cultural thinking

  5. Carla d. Says:

    Very interesting report… 🙂

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s