Languages are important because they help us express our own thoughts and ideas and they help us communicate with other people. Knowing more than one language is great if you are traveling, talking to people from other cultures and having better chances at employment.
But how about our personality and the way we see the world? Does this change as well? And our brain–are we somehow smarter if we know more languages or does it just make us more confused than ever?
What is language?
Language is central to human experience, and the languages we speak profoundly shape the way we think, the way we see the world, the way we live our lives.
Language is tightly connected to the culture, history, tradition, way of living and speaking. Which means that as we learn foreign languages we also dive into a new culture. And that bilingual people have more than one culture.
Bilinguals and multilinguals
Bilinguals are individuals who speak two languages. And multilinguals are people who speak more than two. There are different definitions on who is bilingual depending on the age of acquisitions, language competence, and cultural identity.
Cultural identity and personality
Based on researches culture walks hand in hand with a language and cannot be separated from it. Therefore, learning any language without getting to know some culture as well is impossible.
When bilinguals switch between languages, this influences their cultural identity. However, that is not all that changes. According to researches done on bilinguals in America who speak Spanish and English, the personality of bilinguals changes as they change languages.
65 % of bilinguals confirmed it; they feel like a different person when they speak a different language. When they were speaking English they were more extroverted, agreeable and conscientious compared to when they spoke Spanish.
Which doesn’t mean they became a completely different person. Changes are subtle, but they are there.
Why not reinventing ourselves as we change languages and learn new ones? Well, because there is also bilinguals’ basic personality which doesn’t change.
Way of thinking
Switching personality is one thing, but does that mean bilinguals also change the way they are thinking?
Sceptics say that is not so. They say it’s possible that everyone thinks the same way, notices the same things but just talks differently.
Non-sceptics, on the other hand, say that if everyone thought the same way, learning new languages would be a piece of cake. We would just learn some new vocabulary and can speak any language there is.
We wouldn’t have to reconsider the concept of gender in French (where we can find 2 different genders) or in Russian (with 3). Or, even better, orientation in Aboriginal community Kuuk Thaayorre–where you don’t go left or right but rather East or North-west.
“Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.” Jakobson.
Which brings us to this: learning new language requires us to start paying attention to new things.
If we compare German and English, we will discover that in English we are paying attention to the movement, while in German, the result or the goal of that movement is the main focus.
A guy is walking. -English
A guy is walking towards a car. -German
MRI studies show that learning foreign languages makes the brain grow significantly compared to when we are learning something else.
We develop better cognitive functions: better concentration and better performance on the attention tests, we get better at multitasking. People’s brain is aging for 3-4 years slower if they speak more than one language, there is less possibility to develop dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
What happens when we learn more languages?
We become more resourceful and flexible, as we learn how to express ourselves in new ways, not knowing the right words. We grow more open-minded and patient when it comes to ourselves and other people. We become less arrogant–because we see there is always something new to learn, and get more self-confidence at the same time–as we see that we are able to do a lot of things. We discover bad things about our country and lifestyle, but we also discover good ones, which makes us modest and objective patriots.
Our brain grows and becomes forever young.
But most importantly, we get an alternative vision of the world: through a new language and culture our world becomes more colorful and our thoughts more diverse.