The amazing benefits of being bilingual

Speak at least two languages from Mosaic

Most people in the world speak more than one language, suggesting the human brain evolved to work in multiple tongues. If so, asks Gaia Vince, are those of us who speak only one language missing out?

In a cafe in south London, two construction workers are engaged in cheerful banter, tossing words back and forth. Their cutlery dances during more emphatic gesticulations and they occasionally break off into loud guffaws. They are discussing a woman, that much is clear, but the details are lost on me. It’s a shame, because their conversation looks fun and interesting, especially to a nosy person like me. But I don’t speak their language.

Out of curiosity, I interrupt them to ask what they are speaking. With friendly smiles, they both switch easily to English, explaining that they are South Africans and had been speaking Xhosa. In Johannesburg, where they are from, most people speak at least five languages, says one of them, Theo Morris. For example, Theo’s mother’s language is Sotho, his father’s is Zulu, he learned Xhosa and Ndebele from his friends and neighbours, and English and Afrikaans at school. “I went to Germany before I came here, so I also speak German,” he adds.

Was it easy to learn so many languages?

“Yes, it’s normal,” he laughs.

He’s right. Around the world, more than half of people – estimates vary from 60 to 75 per cent – speak at least two languages. Many countries have more than one official national language – South Africa has 11. People are increasingly expected to speak, read and write at least one of a handful of “super” languages, such as English, Chinese, Hindi, Spanish or Arabic, as well. So to be monolingual, as many native English speakers are, is to be in the minority, and perhaps to be missing out.

Multilingualism has been shown to have many social, psychological and lifestyle advantages. Moreover, researchers are finding a swathe of health benefits from speaking more than one language, including faster stroke recovery and delayed onset of dementia.

At the current rate, half our languages will be extinct by the end of the century

Could it be that the human brain evolved to be multilingual – that those who speak only one language are not exploiting their full potential? And in a world that is losing languages faster than ever – at the current rate of one a fortnight, half our languages will be extinct by the end of the century – what will happen if the current rich diversity of languages disappears and most of us end up speaking only one?

I am sitting in a laboratory, headphones on, looking at pictures of snowflakes on a computer. As each pair of snowflakes appears, I hear a description of one of them through the headphones. All I have to do is decide which snowflake is being described. The only catch is that the descriptions are in a completely invented language called Syntaflake.

It’s part of an experiment by Panos Athanasopoulos, an ebullient Greek with a passion for languages. Professor of psycholinguistics and bilingual cognition at Lancaster University, he’s at the forefront of a new wave of research into the bilingual mind. As you might expect, his lab is a Babel of different nationalities and languages – but no one here grew up speaking Syntaflake.

The task is profoundly strange and incredibly difficult. Usually, when interacting in a foreign language, there are clues to help you decipher the meaning. The speaker might point to the snowflake as they speak, use their hands to demonstrate shapes or their fingers to count out numbers, for example. Here I have no such clues and, it being a made-up language, I can’t even rely on picking up similarities to languages I already know.

After a time, though, I begin to feel a pattern might be emerging with the syntax and sounds. I decide to be mathematical about it and get out pen and paper to plot any rules that emerge, determined not to “fail” the test.

The experience reminds me of a time I arrived in a rural town a few hours outside Beijing and was forced to make myself understood in a language I could neither speak nor read, among people for whom English was similarly alien. But even then, there had been clues… Now, without any accompanying human interaction, the rules governing the sounds I’m hearing remain elusive, and at the end of the session I have to admit defeat.

I join Athanasopoulos for a chat while my performance is being analysed by his team.

Glumly, I recount my difficulties at learning the language, despite my best efforts. But it appears that was where I went wrong: “The people who perform best on this task are the ones who don’t care at all about the task and just want to get it over as soon as possible. Students and teaching staff who try to work it out and find a pattern always do worst,” he says.

“It’s impossible in the time given to decipher the rules of the language and make sense of what’s being said to you. But your brain is primed to work it out subconsciously. That’s why, if you don’t think about it, you’ll do okay in the test – children do the best.”

The first words ever uttered may have been as far back as 250,000 years ago, once our ancestors stood up on two legs and freed the ribcage from weight-bearing tasks, allowing fine nerve control of breathing and pitch to develop. And when humans had got one language, it wouldn’t have been long before we had many.

Language evolution can be compared to biological evolution, but whereas genetic change is driven by environmental pressures, languages change and develop through social pressures. Over time, different groups of early humans would have found themselves speaking different languages. Then, in order to communicate with other groups – for trade, travel and so on – it would have been necessary for some members of a family or band to speak other tongues.

We can get some sense of how prevalent multilingualism may have been from the few hunter-gatherer peoples who survive today. “If you look at modern hunter-gatherers, they are almost all multilingual,” says Thomas Bak, a cognitive neurologist who studies the science of languages at the University of Edinburgh. “The rule is that one mustn’t marry anyone in the same tribe or clan to have a child – it’s taboo. So every single child’s mum and dad speak a different language.”

In Aboriginal Australia, where more than 130 indigenous languages are still spoken, multilingualism is part of the landscape. “You will be walking and talking with someone, and then you might cross a small river and suddenly your companion will switch to another language,” says Bak. “People speak the language of the earth.” This is true elsewhere, too. “Consider in Belgium: you take a train in Liège, the announcements are in French first. Then, pass through Loewen, where the announcements will be in Dutch first, and then in Brussels it reverts back to French first.”

The connection with culture and geography is why Athanasopoulos invented a new language for the snowflake test. Part of his research lies in trying to tease out the language from the culture it is threaded within, he explains.

Being so bound up with identity, language is also deeply political. The emergence of European nation states and the growth of imperialism during the 19th century meant it was regarded as disloyal to speak anything other than the one national language. This perhaps contributed to the widely held opinion – particularly in Britain and the US – that bringing up children to be bilingual was harmful to their health and to society more generally.

There were warnings that bilingual children would be confused by two languages, have lower intelligence and behave in deviant ways

There were warnings that bilingual children would be confused by two languages, have lower intelligence, low self-esteem, behave in deviant ways, develop a split personality and even become schizophrenic. It is a view that persisted until very recently, discouraging many immigrant parents from using their own mother tongue to speak to their children, for instance. This is in spite of a 1962 experiment, ignored for decades, which showed that bilingual children did better than monolinguals in both verbal and non-verbal intelligence tests.

However, research in the last decade by neurologists, psychologists and linguists, using the latest brain-imaging tools, is revealing a swathe of cognitive benefits for bilinguals. It’s all to do with how our ever-flexible minds learn to multitask.

Split personality

Ask me in English what my favourite food is, and I will picture myself in London choosing from the options I enjoy there. But ask me in French, and I transport myself to Paris, where the options I’ll choose from are different. So the same deeply personal question gets a different answer depending on the language in which you’re asking me. This idea that you gain a new personality with every language you speak, that you act differently when speaking different languages, is a profound one.

Athanasopoulos and his colleagues have been studying the capacity for language to change people’s perspectives. In one experiment, English and German speakers were shown videos of people moving, such as a woman walking towards her car or a man cycling to the supermarket. English speakers focus on the action and typically describe the scene as “a woman is walking” or “a man is cycling”. German speakers, on the other hand, have a more holistic worldview and will include the goal of the action: they might say (in German) “a woman walks towards her car” or “a man cycles towards the supermarket”.

Part of this is due to the grammatical toolkit available, Athanasopoulos explains. Unlike German, English has the -ing ending to describe actions that are ongoing. This makes English speakers much less likely than German speakers to assign a goal to an action when describing an ambiguous scene. When he tested English–German bilinguals, however, whether they were action- or goal-focused depended on which country they were tested in. If the bilinguals were tested in Germany, they were goal-focused; in England, they were action-focused, no matter which language was used, showing how intertwined culture and language can be in determining a person’s worldview.

In the 1960s, one of the pioneers of psycholinguistics, Susan Ervin-Tripp, tested Japanese–English bilingual women, asking them to finish sentences in each language. She found that the women ended the sentences very differently depending on which language was used. For example, “When my wishes conflict with my family…” was completed in Japanese as “it is a time of great unhappiness”; in English, as “I do what I want”. Another example was “Real friends should…”, which was completed as “help each other” in Japanese and “be frank” in English.

Many bilinguals say they feel like a different person when they speak their other language

From this, Ervin-Tripp concluded that human thought takes place within language mindsets, and that bilinguals have different mindsets for each language – an extraordinary idea but one that has been borne out in subsequent studies, and many bilinguals say they feel like a different person when they speak their other language.

These different mindsets are continually in conflict, however, as bilingual brains sort out which language to use.

In a revealing experiment with his English-German bilingual group, Athanasopoulos got them to recite strings of numbers out loud in either German or English. This effectively “blocked” the other language altogether, and when they were shown the videos of movement, the bilinguals’ descriptions were more action- or goal-focused depending on which language had been blocked.

So, if they recited numbers in German, their responses to the videos were more typically German and goal-focused. When the number recitation was switched to the other language midway, their video responses also switched.

I sit in on an art class with 12-year-olds being taught by two teachers: one speaking English, the other Chinese. The children are engaged but quiet, concentrating on the task of learning multiple ideas. When they speak it is often in Chinese – and there is something rather surreal about watching young people in the UK discussing British graffiti artist Banksy in Mandarin. The children say they chose to learn in Chinese because they thought it would be “fun” and “interesting” and “useful” – a far cry from the dreary French lessons I endured at school.

The majority of the art class will take their Chinese GCSE exams several years early but Strowger tells me the programme has had many benefits in addition to their grades, including improving students’ engagement and enjoyment, increasing their awareness of other cultures so that they are equipped as global citizens, widening their horizons, and improving their job prospects.

What about those of us who have left school? In order to maintain the benefits of bilingualism, you need to use your languages and that can be tricky, especially for older people who may not have many opportunities to practise. Perhaps we need language clubs, where people can meet to speak other languages. Bak has done a small pilot study with elderly people learning Gaelic in Scotland and seen significant benefits after just one week. Now he aims to carry out a much larger trial.

It is never too late to learn another tongue, and it can be very rewarding. Alex Rawlings is a British professional polyglot who speaks 15 languages: “Each language gives you a whole new lifestyle, a whole new shade of meaning,” he says. “It’s addictive!”

“People say it’s too hard as an adult. But I would say it’s much easier after the age of eight. It takes three years for a baby to learn a language, but just months for an adult.”

As the recent research shows, that’s a worthwhile investment of time. Being bilingual could keep our minds working longer and better into old age, which could have a massive impact on how we school our children and treat older people. In the meantime, it makes sense to talk, hablarparlersprechenbeszel, berbicara in as many languages as you can.