Becoming bilingual does amazing things to your brain, with being able to speak a foreign tongue being just one of several benefits.
While there’s an obvious practical benefit for aspiring expats to learn the language of their new home, they’ll also find that their minds work differently – and in some cases better – as a result.
Here are four of the surprising things you’ll find as you learn a new language.
Apparently, thinking over your choices in your second language allows you to get greater distance from them. This lessens the immediacy of the choice, reducing things such as fear of missing out and the perceived scale of the consequences.
These findings came from a study by the University of Chicago. Leading communication expert and psychologist Boaz Keysar explained;
‘We know from previous research that because people are naturally loss averse, they often forgo attractive opportunities. Our new findings demonstrate that such aversion to losses is much reduced when people make decisions in their non-native language.’
Things that seem like a big deal in English don’t seem so bad in your second tongue; it’s like a quicker way of sleeping on the decision to tackle it from a fresh perspective. Your mother tongue also carries more emotional resonance than a foreign language, so bilinguals are able to make more logical choices, using their heads rather than their hearts.
The rules and intricacies of a foreign language also assist with decision making, as they force you to examine things more carefully and find meaning and context in words you’re unfamiliar with.
It’s one of those wonderful natural ironies, but learning another language can actually make you a better speaker and writer in your mother tongue.
It’s easy to get by day-to-day without knowing what a conjunction is, or an adverb, or a gerund. It’s not like the bus driver refuses to give you a ticket until you can explain what an attributive noun is.
But when you learn another language, these things become important again. Otherwise no one will understand what you’re on about.
The huge difference in the way you learned to speak your native language and how you learn to speak another means that the mechanics of speech are much more visible. As children we pick up language by being surrounded by speakers; it is very different learning a second language through an app, an online course, or even in a classroom.
We learn our first language through context; observing other speakers and absorbing those rules through osmosis, without even realising it. Learning a second language is probably not going to involve the same process; you’ll approach it in a more structured way, learning to categorise words based upon their functions, rather than simply by being the most important ones you may need.
Children learn the words they hear, such as the embarrassing thing you said to your partner last night that you definitely don’t want shouted in the middle of a Costa. Adults learn words based upon their importance within a set of rules.
By becoming bilingual you become not only a better speaker in your native language, but also a better writer.
Not necessarily a skill for which numerous applications instantly spring to mind, but one of the more interesting benefits of being bilingual is that you can actually experience time differently.
This doesn’t mean having the ability to dodge bullets like in The Matrix or see things happening in slow motion.
It comes from the different concepts that languages use to measure and refer to time. In languages like English or Swiss, speakers talk about time as though it is a distance; in Spanish or Greek, for instance, time is referred to in terms of volume.
English speakers might see a ‘long’ film at the cinema; Spaniards may think of the movie as ‘big’.
Scientists tested the idea that people speaking different languages experience time differently. They showed Spanish-Swedish speakers an animation of containers being filled with liquid and lines growing longer. The participants were asked to estimate how much time had passed.
Survey participants were told to measure duration with a command in either Spanish or Swedish. If participants were instructed in Spanish, they based their estimates on how full the containers were. The growing lines did not affect them.
But when they are given instructions in Swedish, participants used the growing lines to measure time and ignored the filling vessels.
Professor Athanasopoulos, one of the study organisers, explained;
‘By learning a new language, you suddenly become attuned to perceptual dimensions that you weren’t aware of before. The fact that bilinguals go between these different ways of estimating time effortlessly and unconsciously fits in with a growing body of evidence demonstrating the ease with which language can creep into our most basic senses, including our emotions, our visual perception, and now it turns out, our sense of time.’
So if you’re bilingual you’re a master of time… in a way at least.
Focussing on something involves the ability to filter out distractions and also switch your attention when required. For instance, from letting your mind wander on a train journey to paying attention to the announcement relating to your stop.
When you try to concentrate, the part of your brain that wants your attention to wander is suppressed, but not always perfectly. Sometimes your brain switches focus to something else; movement outside the window, a conversation behind you, or an itchy nose.
Research has shown that bilinguals are better at focusing on something. Why? Because the bilingual brain is well-practised in making those attention switches. Someone who understands more than one language needs to be able to switch to using the right tongue in a conversation.
They also need to be able to quiet the ‘noise’ from other languages. It’s not helpful to be running a second translation of everything you’re hearing and saying in another language in your head the whole time. The human brain only has enough processing power to just about understand two conversations at once, so hearing a dual-language commentary in your head would be a waste of valuable brain power.
Tests show that bilinguals are no better at actually filtering out distractions than monolinguals, but they can focus better.
This supports the idea that their brains are more adept at switching task; they can recover more quickly from distractions and order their brains to pay attention to what they are doing more easily than those who speak only one language.
This constant practice of switching focus also makes bilinguals better at multitasking.
As you can see, the benefits of learning another language go far beyond being able to order ice cream abroad and get the flavours you actually wanted. Learning another language does lots of interesting things to your brain, improving your cognition and giving you a fresh perspective on the world.
Learning another language is always fulfilling, but it becomes even more so if you’re actually going to be living in a country where it’s spoken. So why not add a new layer of experience and integration to your expat journey and dive into learning the mother tongue of your adopted home?
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