Bilingualism: How Languages Make a Fit Brain


Human language is a miraculous gift of nature, opening the window to the world of ideas. But, besides that, it is also a powerful tool to train our brains.

If you are reading this, that means that you understand English. Yet, English might not be your mother tongue, meaning that you belong to the bilingual or, even better, multilingual club. Bilingualism not only allows you to understand and express yourself using different codes, but it also has the power to shape your brain and modify how it works.

Language, a unique ability

We cannot discuss the impact of languages on our minds without first understanding what it is. Language might seem an easy-to-define concept, as it is something we constantly use (to the point that we take it for granted). So, it should be something quite obvious. Right?

Well, as it happens with many other fundamental ideas, the concept gets hazy when we have a close-up look. Linguistics has addressed the topic from different perspectives. However, nowadays, the most accepted definition of human language comes down to a complex computational process involving three areas: words, rules, and interfaces.

  • Words are the tool to encode ideas. They are a symbol combining form, sound, and meaning. Note the relationships uniting the concept a word refers to and its shape is entirely arbitrary (Saussure, 1974).
The differences between signified and signifier
The word cat does not look like a cat neither sound like one. There is no reason for it to be like that.
  • Rules are the algorithm allowing us to build up messages: phonology, morphology, grammar, and syntax make up the structure to shape our ideas. Contrary to what it appears, the ‘recipe’ of language is what allows us to assemble thoughts in a creative yet correct way.
  • Interfaces are simply the channels allowing us to produce and understand languages.

How do we learn languages?

We all speak a language, attesting it is inherent to the human condition. Not a single group of humans without language exists. And there are somewhat around 7000 different languages in the world. Ergo, it all seems to point down to an evolutionary miracle that set our brains to develop it.

We do not fully understand how this magical and staggering complex process happens. Nevertheless, it seems to be a combination of statistical and social learning. First, we distil and guess the rules and meanings of our mother tongue by simple exposure. Following, we consolidate the knowledge by force of repetition.

In a nutshell, the social aspect of human language and rote memorization generate an intricate net of wires in the brain. This wiring happens snappily regarding kids. The lower specialization of infants’ brains favours them in this task, as they use their whole intellect actively in the learning process.

On the contrary, adults’ brains are more specialized. The mature brain lateralizes its processes to one or the other hemisphere (language is usually handled on the left side). That’s a positive trait! It makes us more effective, but it hampers the creation of new neural paths as we grow old. Regardless, there is no difference between the child and the adult acquiring a language from scratch.

cerebral hemispheres
People who learnt a new language as an adult tend to show less emotional bias when using that language due to lateralization.

So, what is bilingualism?

Now that we have talked about language and how we learn, we can ask ourselves what bilingualism is.

Put simply, ‘is the ability to speak two languages’ as Merriam-Webster states. However, the description of this concept should entail a thoughtful consideration of how people acquire their language sets and the manner their brains process them.

As a result, we can establish three categories to classify the ability to speak more than one language:

  • Compound bilingualism: This group includes the people that developed their set of languages simultaneously. As kids, they were exposed to several languages, meaning they used the same concepts to grasp them.
  • Coordinate bilingualism: These speakers learnt their languages during different stages of their life. Still, their usage of them is equal.

For the record, these are the groups some linguists consider ‘authentic’ bilinguals as they speak all languages with the same level of proficiency and without showing a preference for one.

  • Subordinate bilingualism: The last group includes those who also learnt a second (or more languages), filtering it through their primary language. But, as opposed to coordinate bilinguals, they present what we know as ‘asymmetric acquisition’. This is a situation in which one of the languages clearly dominates the other and has a preferential use.

How languages shape your brain

The reasons why people speak more than one language are as diverse as the speakers. However, linguists and neurologists can claim the impact of language on the brain is similar for all humans.

There is considerable controversy regarding the possible links between language and thought. In the past, authors such as Sapir and Whorf defended how the languages we speak do determine how we think. However, the current linguist theories separate language from thought yet admit that language does shape the brain to some extent.

One instance of this is the way we perceive time. English or Swedish speakers regard time as a physical distance; the pass of time is a distance travelled. All the same, Greek and Spanish speakers refer to time as a quantity, something that grows or decreases. Hence, a break would be ‘short’ for the firsts and ‘small’ for the seconds.

connection between thought and language in cognitive science
The connection between thought and language is one of the main topics in cognitive science 

Grammatical gender is also proof of this phenomenon. When speakers of French and Spanish were asked to impersonate different objects, the outcome was very different. Those who spoke French articulated phrases with a squeaky high-pitched voice in the case of a car, as it is a feminine word. Meanwhile, Spanish speakers adopted a lower and deeper tone, given it is a masculine word in this language.

As we see, language has the power to code the manner we perceive the world (in some way, at least). And even if there is no consensus, it is thought it makes the speaker more sensitive to certain realities. So, for example, speakers with different words for shades of colours tend to perform better in visual discrimination exercises.

These reality-interpretation switches occur in two isolated spheres for those speaking several languages. In short, speaking more than one language creates the environment for the brain to shift from one mental process to the other and generate a correct behaviour response. This activity is known as cognitive flexibility. And, even if we all have it, bilinguals do it better.

The ‘fit’ brain

Besides all this, physical brain changes also occur in those speaking more than one language. The complexity of developing a whole different encoding comes with an overall improvement in brain health.

As we mentioned, the acquisition of a language requires the creation of neural connections. As a result, more synapsis occur, and the grey matter gets denser. MRIs show that specific regions grow, creating a ‘plumper’ brain.

And why do you want a plump brain? Well, because it makes your brain more complex and engaged in different activities. All of this results in:

  • Decreased possibilities of developing dementia or Alzheimer’s.
  • Better attention and performance solving tasks. The executive function, the skill to control, direct and manage attention, is enhanced.

Funny enough, in the past, bilingualism was seen as an impediment in problem-solving as people switching languages tend to have slower reactions and produce more errors when going back and forth.

  • Improved cognitive functions, particularly in those who picked up the languages at a young age.

Language is further beyond being just a communication tool. Instead, it is an instrument allowing us to imbibe different cultures, channel our thoughts, and access the human mind. And, besides, it is excellent training for the organ of ideas.

In conclusion, whether you learn a language out of necessity or just for fun, you will experience incredible benefits from it. The effort of interiorizing and learning rules, words, and expressions pays off. The physical routes in your brain will change, and new ones will appear, creating a healthier, sharper brain for the rest of your life.

And for those of you who speak just one language, remember: it’s never too late to learn a new language and maybe even become bilingual.

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