It has become common knowledge that knowing more than one language is good for the brain. It improves mental flexibility and makes it easier to switch between tasks. I recently attended a fascinating talk on bilingualism which was part of the University of Edinburgh’s Dangerous Ideas for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. I would like to share some points from the talk as well as my own reflections on becoming bilingual:

The main argument of the talk was that the concept of a Monolingual/Bilingual binary is out of date and incorrect. Instead, we should measure bilingualism and multilingualism on a sliding scale.

What do these terms mean?

A monolingual is effectively someone that speaks and understands a single language.

A bilingual is someone who speaks 2 languages, which strictly speaking, includes dialects of a language. So someone from Glasgow, Scotland, is technically a bilingual as they learn to speak and write standard English at school but also speak Glaswegian, a dialect of English that can be really quite different from English.

A trilingual speaks three languages and so on until to you reach the multilingual or polyglot status of speaking multiple languages.

What do we mean by ‘speak’?

Does to ‘speak’ a language mean native level fluency? Perhaps conversational proficiency? Here again we meet a sliding scale.

I remember when I first went to Morocco, having studied formal Arabic for a year at University and could communicate in a formal setting about fairly ambitious terms. For example, I could say ‘My father is an officer, specialised in translation, who works for the United Nations’ but I could not ask simple questions such as ‘where is the bathroom?  While my level of Arabic may have been to a high standard, I was by no means fluent in a natural setting.

Personally, I like to think of ‘fluent’ as being comfortable in a language; being understood even if making many mistakes.

Monolinguals are disappearing

The speaker explained that monolinguals are becoming more and more rare in the current global climate where many nations live together in cosmopolitan areas and with people all across the world learning a second or third language at school. This is a good thing as it increases cultural and linguistic tolerance of others and it has neurological benefits as well!

Learning a Language Changes your Brain

Even if you live in an environment where you are passively exposed to other languages, changes begin to occur in your brain. A study was conducted to compare ‘monolinguals’ living in the multilingual state of California with monolinguals living in largely homogenous Pennsylvania. Participants from both areas were analysed while they undertook to learn Finnish, a very difficult and rare language. The results showed that the Californian participants were significantly better learners of Finnish simply because they had been exposed to other languages in their environment. This includes overheard conversations, signage in another language and so on.

Blurring the Lines

Learning or knowing additional languages has an impact on your native language. I have experienced this phenomenon known as ‘language attrition’. Sometimes it takes me longer to come up with English terms than foreign ones.  Language attrition can also be found on a grammatical level. I noticed that my sentence order was a lot more free, so much so that I could be found saying phrases such as the completely ungrammatical  ‘do you want to with me go to the shop?’. This can feel like you are losing you own language but actually, it is just proof that your mind is comfortable with multiple language structures.

The topic of the bilingual vs. monolingual brain is a large one that could move onto all sorts of concepts such as ‘Do you have a different personality in a different language?’.  Perhaps this will be a future article! In the meantime, enjoy the fascinating side-effects of learning another language!

Stephanie Scullion

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