My Bilingual Brain is Bigger than your Monolingual Brain

The BrainOk, don’t take offense by my title, because I am really not bilingual. But I am going to show you why I wish I were.

Bilinguals are people who can speak two languages easily and naturally. Sometimes bilinguals are said to be "fluent" in another language.

Many lucky people grow up bilingual, speaking two languages every day. Others work hard to become bilingual by long-term study, living abroad, and hours of practice. Most of us, to be honest, are not truly bilingual. Linguistically capable, yes, but not bilingual.

Either way, there are lots of advantages to language study, and working to achieve bilingualness (bilinguality?).

Scientists think that bilinguals, due to their study of and mastery of two different language structures, have denser, more capable brains. These brains may be better at logic, math and music (any field of study that has patterns and structure).

But does learning in childhood – perfecting the first language while learning another - interfere with primary language acquisition? Nope. Studies show that this is just not the case; children almost never confuse the two languages.

Interestingly, bilinguals are more likely to not be able to find the right word in what I’d call the "tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon". For example, the right word goes missing just when you need it. This happens to everybody, but bilinguals seem to have it especially bad. One possible explanation is that words with similar sounds or meanings compete for our brain's attention. Since bilinguals know twice as many words as monolinguals, that big, dense brain has to sift through a larger repertoire, and the chances increase that a word will not come conveniently to mind.

Bilingualism has a very positive effect on learning, brain growth, and mental acuity. This is why my bilingual brain is bigger than yours. (No offense, again). Studying a language gives you:

  • Stronger intellectual growth. You can do more with that brain! You are smarter!
  • More flexibility in your thinking. You are more creative! You can solve problems!
  • Greater sensitivity to language, nuances, subtleties. You understand small, but interesting differences between words!
  • A better ear for listening. You can read between the lines!

In the book "In Other Words", Ellen Bialystok and Kenji Hakuta describe the effects of the knowledge of two languages as maddening but worth the effort:

"...knowing two languages is much more than simply knowing two ways of speaking....it seems evident that the mind of a speaker who has in some way attached two sets of linguistic details to a conceptual representation…has entertained possibilities that the monolingual speaker has had no need to entertain. The enriching aspect of bilingualism may follow directly from its most maddening complication: it is precisely because the structures and concepts of different languages never coincide that the experience of learning a second language is so spectacular in its effects."

Do you know of other advantages or effects of being bilingual? Are you inspired to pick up your French books again?

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