Brainstorm: Multilingualism and the Mind

Neya Thanikachalam, Features Editor

How do the languages you speak change the way you think? The answer’s surprisingly complicated.

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: From The Daily Northwestern, this is Neya Thanikachalam. I’m back with another episode of Brainstorm, a podcast exploring all things health, science and tech.

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: I grew up learning two different languages — English and Tamil, a language that originated in India. It’s pretty common for people to learn multiple languages, whether it’s at home or in school — in fact, about half the world is multilingual.

Sure, there are lots of reasons to learn multiple languages, like to make yourself more hireable or, in my case, to better communicate with family. And there’s definitely a social benefit associated with learning multiple languages because we can simply talk to more people.

But it’s harder to understand how languages actually affect the way that we think, according to Sherry Ning. She’s a Ph.D. candidate who works with the Bilingualism and Psycholinguistics Research Group at Northwestern.

SHERRY NING: Language itself — it’s kind of such an abstract thing. It’s not like physics or chemistry that we can just use a microscope to investigate or just mix things up and see what reaction will happen. We have to use these roundabout ways of getting at how you acquire language and how they are stored in your head — maybe manipulating specific features in the words I show you or by having you do certain tasks with pictures and naming pictures or learning new words. So because it’s such an intangible thing, that makes it very hard to understand.

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: You might think of a language as a vast network of words and concepts taking up space in our brains. But what happens if there’s more than one language system in the brain? Would there just be a tangled jumble of words floating around in my mind?

SHERRY NING: With bilinguals, there are still a lot of debates in terms of how the two languages interact with each other. Are they always co-activated? How do they interfere with each other?

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: Understanding how the brain works has always been a little tricky, so it makes sense that understanding the effects of bilingualism on the brain is also confusing. But, there’s actually the possibility of there being potential benefits to learning another language — the so-called “bilingual advantage.”

MATTHEW GOLDRICK: One thing that bilinguals have to do is they have to switch between languages.

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: That’s linguistics professor Matthew Goldrick. What he’s describing is multilinguals’ mental gymnastics when they switch between languages. For me, it’s often an unconscious decision, just based on context and my surroundings. Matthew said that’s pretty normal, especially if you grew up in an environment where switching is common.

Like this morning, I said to my dad, “எனக்கு coffee mugல​ போடறீங்களா?” which translates to “Can you put coffee in the mug?” I need my caffeine to function. But if you listen to that sentence again — “எனக்கு coffee mugல​ போடறீங்களா?” — you’ll see that I switched between Tamil and English in one sentence. And it’s not because I was thinking specifically of whether I should say coffee in English or Tamil. It’s just what came to mind at that moment.

MATTHEW GOLDRICK: If I want to speak Hindi and not English, I have to exert mental effort to do that. And then the question has been, is that the muscle, the sort of mental muscle, you’re exerting when you want to not speak Hindi and speak English — is that the same mental muscle we use when we have to do things like switch from reading an email to being in a podcast or switch from working on this class’s homework to another class’s homework?

SHERRY NING: The brain is also like the rest of our body. You can exercise it to make it work faster and more efficient. So, this kind of inhibition, because you exercise it so constantly, you would get better at this kind of inhibitive behavior.

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: So if bilinguals were more efficient at this “mental switching,” then this could be considered a pretty significant advantage to have, as their executive functions, or higher level cognitive skills, might be better in some way. But that’s being called into question.

MATTHEW GOLDRICK: It’s a very active area of study, but it’s turned out to be a lot harder question to ask than we sort of originally thought to try and understand — is there a general benefit to being bilingual?

SIRADA ROCHANAVIBHATA: Many people are starting to shift away from, first of all, calling it a benefit, but maybe calling it a difference. There are differences in cognitive control or executive functions between those who speak one language versus those who speak two or more languages. That’s maybe a better way to look at that.

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: That’s Sirada Rochanavibhata, a Ph.D. candidate who also works with the Bilingualism and Psycholinguistics Research Group. Sherry and Sirada added there might be another reason why there’s so much debate. Researchers aren’t conducting studies with uniform variables, so differences in the experiment or between participants can affect outcomes. Even who’s considered bilingual can change from study to study.

SHERRY NING: Some studies would say if you know another language, no matter how well you speak the other language, you can be called bilingual. Other studies would say you have to have a proficiency level at ‘this high’ or you have to have learned the languages before ‘this age.’

SIRADA ROCHANAVIBHATA: These bilinguals don’t all have the same, for example, socioeconomic status, backgrounds or even education. And so many of the differences in the results are likely attributed to these differences in the populations tested.

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: So do multilinguals’ brains work differently from monolinguals’ brains? Some research suggests that’s possible.

SHERRY NING: If you think about it, language is something that really guides our categorization of the world. Language is not only used for communications really. Some people say it’s a vehicle of thought. When we look at the world, it’s actually not as organized as we think, it’s actually a whole mess.

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: One category that’s completely arbitrary is color. Color is on a spectrum, from white to black for humans, and we choose to categorize changes in color with different names. We’ve got words for many different colors in English, but some of those colors might not have labels in another language, and vice versa.

For example, there are two different names for the color blue in Russian — голубой, for a light shade of blue, while the other, синий is for a darker shade.

SHERRY NING: When we test Russian speakers and English speakers on their identification distinguishing different shades of blue, we see Russian speakers doing much better at that than English speakers are.

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: And that’s not the only evidence that shows that bilinguals think differently. It’s been proven that people who speak languages that assign genders to different objects, like Spanish and German, tend to think of those objects as inherently possessing more masculine or feminine qualities.

SHERRY NING: We typically think of grammatical gender as not having anything to do with the actual gender assignments. However, we do see that by just calling the masculine and feminine, it has some influence on how people think of those objects.

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: Take a bridge, for example. The Spanish word for bridge, el puente, is masculine, while the German word for bridge, die Brücke, is feminine.

SHERRY NING: And so when we ask Spanish speakers and German speakers to come up with adjectives that would describe these objects. We see Spanish speakers coming up with adjectives like strong, dangerous, long, sturdy, but German speakers come up with things like fragile, elegant, beautiful.

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: But it’s not like every Spanish speaker is just constantly thinking about and judging the gender of, say, a table. It’s much more complicated than that. Languages can have a powerful effect on our brains and how we understand the world around us. It’s just hard to pinpoint exactly what that effect is.

SHERRY NING: Say an infant is born into this world. And then he learns different languages. The language that he learns will serve to guide how he thinks of the world. Being bilingual is actually not a very unique thing anymore. So it’s even more important that we understand how bilingualism works, and currently there’s not enough studies on that.

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: That’s all that we have for today. Thanks for listening, and we’ll be back soon. This episode was reported and produced by me, Neya Thanikachalam. The audio editor is Molly Lubbers, the digital managing editors are Kalen Luciano and Heena Srivastava, and the editor in chief of The Daily Northwestern is Marissa Martinez.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @neyachalam

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