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Being bilingual

Mirela Ivanova looks at how speaking another language can give you another view of the world – and yourself.

An article in New Scientist discussed the effects of bilingualism on the brain. It appears that the British reluctance to learn languages due to the universality of English has more than one consequence. To countries like Switzerland where bilingualism is the natural policy, the single-language choice may appear a bit condescending or, considering the widening of multiculturalism, behind the times. That, however, is not the only problem for single language speakers.

Brain training

Studies have shown that bilingualism increases cognitive ability. Multiple language speakers completed tasks faster. Thus - bilingualism is a form of brain training. As someone who has English as a second language I've had first hand experience of the brain's extra work. Imagine both languages as two young children constantly fighting for a parent’s attention. The parent is the idea you're trying to portray. Both languages battle for pronunciation by suggesting whatever word is reasonably relevant. Thus, each time you try to pronounce a sentence the brain works its way through a similar versions of it in both languages and then chooses the language you are attempting to use. This is the kind of training certain iPhone apps claim to provide. It requires logic and decision making in a similar way to algebra equations. The benefits of bilingualism can thus be traced in education.

Cultural values

Nonetheless, scientists suggest that bilingualism has some negative consequences. Studies with Japanese-Anglo speaking students have shown differences between the ideas and values of the students when speaking a different language. The subjects were asked the same questions over two weeks in different languages and answered very differently. While in Japanese they completed the sentence ‘true friends should…’ with ‘care for one another’, in English they said ‘true friends should...be honest.’ It seems that a speaker’s  values are affected by the culture of the places from where the language they are speaking derives. It is almost as if one brain can have two minds.

Language shapes us, and knowing more than one allows us to flick between different personalities and be freely absorbed by a foreign culture. Understanding someone’s language can help us understand their values. The Anglo-Japanese study also showed people were likely to present themselves very differently in the two languages. The fact that in Japan honesty and humbleness are highly regarded qualities reflected onto the bilingual speaker’s description of their character. Confidence and strength of character, as valued in England, was also echoed in their descriptions and the same people who were sparing of their talents in Japanese, offered assertive and strong praise for themselves in English.

The truth is, all languages carry cultural baggage. And for all those English speakers who can only say a few words in French – it’s never too late. Languages are useful not only for communication, but also for comprehension. That’s why I’m learning my third now. Adios! Chao! Or just bye, if that’s what you please.

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