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Life Changes When A Brain Goes Bilingual

by Sheron Long on July 29, 2014

Shape of the Western hemisphere in an eye, illustrating how life changes and the world view expands for people with a bilingual brain. (Image © Stockbyte)

Oh, how the view of your world expands!
© Stockbyte

Power Up! Know the 6 “Warming” Signs

The bilingual brain is hot! Powered by two or more languages, it leads to a series of life changes. Should you embark on this adventure, recognize the 6 “warming” signs and get set to become a different person.

#1  You Start to Zag

Growing up, you get pretty good at zigging, doing things the usual way. But once you start communicating in a second language, you have to find fast work-arounds. The very thing you want to say requires a word you don’t yet know.

Maybe you want to invite a friend to the beach, but you can’t recall the Spanish word for beach (playa), so you think on your sandals and say (in Spanish): Let’s find some sand. Or, Let’s go down by the water. Or, To Acapulco!

Acapulco beach, discovered while trying to build bilingual brain power in Mexico. Image © Erkki Tamsalu / iStock)

The beach in Acapulco—worth getting there!
© Erkki Tamsalu / iStock

When you’re learning a language, you do this over and over and over again. Pretty soon, an important concept sinks in: If you’re stuck and can’t solve the problem in one way,  you can always solve it in another.

Then you start approaching all of life’s problems, big and small, in a flexible way—zigging when you can, zagging when you can’t.

#2  You Take More Risks

Anyone new to a language knows it’s a risk to open your mouth and talk. We all have our stories, like the time my husband expressed appreciation to our French friend Françoise: Merci, Frambroise! (Thanks, Raspberry!)

But it’s the unabashed courage to keep on talking that finally blesses you with a bilingual brain. Along the way, you learn that people are pretty understanding, and you figure out how to get yourself out of trouble.

All that leads to speaking up more, to trying new approaches without the fear of failure because you know one of your next risks will work out well.

#3  You Turn on a Dime

Once multiple languages fill your head, your brain has to activate and prioritize the one that’s needed.

Man's head showing his bilingual brain at work as he switches back and forth between two languages. (Image © Vectoraart / iStock)

The bilingual brain gets stronger
as it toggles between languages.
© Vectoraart / iStock

You find yourself speaking in English to one person and then turn on a dime to communicate with someone else in Spanish.

Your brain gets fast and facile at choosing the right body of words and setting the unneeded language aside.

In fact, you may use both languages at once when you talk to another bilingual, choosing the word from whichever language best conveys your idea.

Judith Kroll calls this “language juggling.” She reports on research showing how all this switching back and forth makes you better at multi-tasking, focusing, and prioritizing—all skills of value in other aspects of life and work.

#4  You Double Your Pleasure

Speak English, and you can talk to about 500 million people in the world. Learn Spanish, and you can talk to over 400 million more. More languages, more friends.

More fun, too, discovering the riches of a culture—so much new food, art, music, and tradition to enjoy.

Slices of a starfruit, native to the Philippines, illustrating how life changes with the tastes of a new culture. (Image © Quanthem / iStock)

Taste the carambola, or starfruit, and taste part of the Philippine culture.
© Quanthem / iStock

And, if you like to play with language, you’ll have a whole new repertoire.

  • The French Voilà says something that’s hard to convey in English, and it has dozens of daily uses, like other words worth borrowing.
  • Other languages may have just the right word for your special someone. Instead of Honey, how about the Spanish Mi vida (my life) or the French Ma puce (my flea)?

#5  You Lose That Notion of  “One Way”

In the US, people drive on the right; in Britain, on the left. But everyone gets around. As you become bilingual, you learn more about culture, too, seeing the truth in this Italian proverb: Many roads lead to Rome. Now you’re freed up for creative problem-solving!

And, more than likely, you’ll embrace someone else’s idea when you see it’s better. In France, les rondpoints (traffic circles) keep cars moving much better than the US intersections with 4-way stops.

Traffic circle in Tarascon, France, illustrating a life-changing idea more likely to be accepted by someone with a bilingual brain. (Image © Sheron Long)

French rondpoints are pretty and practical.
© Sheron Long

The French bullet trains connect cities as far apart as San Francisco and LA in 2.5 hours. Well, rondpoints and bullet trains weren’t hatched in the USA, but why not try them here?

#6  You See Life from Multiple Perspectives

Language is often the portal to a deeper understanding of a culture, that awareness of how people come at life in both the same and different ways.

Blurry clock face showing how different cultures think about the time. (Image © Hayatikayhan / iStock)

Time blurs in some cultures, and in others
it’s the focus: See you at 10 sharp!
© Hayatikayhan / iStock

Take time, for example. One perspective is that time is linear, useful for making and keeping to a schedule.

Another is that it’s more important to fill time well. Why head to a scheduled event when the present one isn’t satisfyingly over?

Attitudes toward time are deeply rooted in culture, so much so that invitations may give the start time of an event, followed by hora latina (Latin time) or hora inglesa (English time).

Just the assignment of a gender to every noun in Spanish, French, and Italian is a clue to cultural attitudes, though sometimes confusing.

  • Why is a word like necklace masculine in Spanish—el collar—and a word like beard feminine—la barba?
  • And why is fork masculine in Spanish (el tenedor) and feminine in French (la fourchette)?

After shifting in such fundamental ways when you step into another culture or speak a second language, you begin to appreciate that perspectives are not necessarily better or worse, just different. And that alone helps with all kinds of relationships, even those closest to home.

Ready to Build Your Bilingual Brain Power?

It’s easier than you may think. Foreign movies. Online courses. Volunteer travel. Bilingual forums. World music and songs. And soon your life changes.

Even if you don’t master your second language, you may have an experience like William Alexander’s. He flirted with French and failed, but he did see a huge increase in his scores on a test of cognitive power. As he told the New York Times, “Studying a language had been like drinking from a mental fountain of youth.”

Such an “Oh, I see” moment supports recent studies on the benefits of bilingualism for improving memory and delaying dementia. If you don’t build your bilingual brain for the love of language and culture, power it up for the love of life!

Beach sandals, symbolizing how life changes when you take the road to building bilingual brain power. (Image © Oksancia / iStock)

Have fun!
Zig or zag your
way to a bilingual brain!
© Oksancia / iStock

See a 2011 summary of research by Dr. Ellen Bialystok (York University) and Dr. Judith Kroll (Penn State) here. Find results published in 2014 of a longitudinal study by Dr. Thomas Bak (University of Edinburgh) here

For a less scientific and fun perspective, enjoy Flirting with French by William Alexander. 

Comment on this post, or inspire insight with your own OIC Moment here.


4 thoughts on “Life Changes When A Brain Goes Bilingual

  1. Very interesting article! I am bilingual (English-Spanish) fluent in both and I love it and am very proud of my spanish culture. English being my second language. I have taught ESL and the language is hard to learn for a fluent spanish speaker but it can be learned and like I said I love both languages!

    • I love both languages, too, Yoli! My favorite Spanish proverb is “Quien sabe dos lenguas vale por dos.” (“Speak two languages and speak for two.”) Keep speaking for two and loving both your cultures!
      All the best,

  2. Very timely post Sheron–and so true. I just relocated to Istanbul and I am drinking from a fire hose so to speak in trying to learn Turkish. I find it encouraging that language, like solving puzzles changes the plasticity of the brain. The Turkish coffee here certainly doesn’t hurt either with getting the creativity cranking. I’m looking forward to making a lot of mistakes here and pushing the comfort zone a bit more. Thanks for the inspiration!

    • Hi Marc,
      How lucky you are to be on an adventure within view of the Bosphorus every day! You’re right about looking forward to the mistakes–they are often the best language teachers. Sure hope you will write back about how it goes as you learn Turkish.
      All the best,

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