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.
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!