Bilinguals Have More Fun


Oh, if only translating a language were as easy as hitting a computer key! (Sorry, Babelfish and Google Translate. You guys only serve as evidence that professional translators have nothing to worry about with job security for a long, long time.)

In an article posted on the World Economic Forum’s website entitled “How the language you speak changes your view of the world,” Panos Athanasopoulos, a professor of linguistics and English language at Lancaster University, provides empirical proof of how bilinguals are way cooler than monolinguals. Or something along those lines.

Although the article Mr. Athanasopoulos penned highlighted tests carried out on UK and German citizens who spoke one or both of each other’s native languages (with a brief mention of Hebrew and Arabic speakers), the lessons derived from the results – in my humble opinion  – can be transferred to other language speakers around the world.

Let me begin with the conclusion of the article: “So the language you speak in really can affect the way you think.”

Okay. Obviously not rocket science.

He goes on to cite what to non-grammarians might see as pedantic observations, such as  structural differences in grammar construction (the use of present continuous for English speakers and the simple present tense in German speakers). However, the more interesting remark came in what he refers to as “worldviews,” native English speakers being more action-oriented (“a man is cycling”) and Germans being more “holistic” and goal-focused (“the man cycles towards the supermarket”).

Mr. Athanasopoulos goes on to add:

When judging risk, bilinguals also tend to make more rational economic decisions in a second language. In contrast to one’s first language, it tends to lack the deep-seated, misleading affective biases that unduly influence how risks and benefits are perceived. So the language you speak in really can affect the way you think.

It was this next part, however, which caught my attention:

People self-report that they feel like a different person when using their different languages and that expressing certain emotions carries different emotional resonance depending on the language they are using.

I first wrote about this idea in a short story (NOTE: falling rocks and shameless self-promotion ahead) called “The Language of Love,” in which the protagonist, a native English-speaking Canadian, struggles to say “I love you” in English to his girlfriend of many years even though he’s comfortable using the Japanese equivalent, daisuki.

True, I tend to think about language a lot in my free time , but these days I’ve been thinking a great deal about the word “love” in particular. When I first learned the word sarang (“love”) in Korean, I naively used it EXACTLY like I would in English. Yet more often than not, I found Koreans wincing (i.e. not laughing or seeming confused) when I said things like “I love kimchi!” or “I love books!” or “I love singing at singing rooms with my amazing singing voice!”

Koreans would inevitably tell me how you can’t use sarang with those objects or situations. Fair enough, I thought; I’ll use it exclusively with human beings. But then I started doing corporate translation work and inevitably companies would say things to stakeholders like “Thank you for LOVING! our company this past year” and “Your L-O-V-E of and interest in our company is sincerely appreciated.”

It made no sense, and in many ways still doesn’t to me. And therein lies the mysterious allure of languages. As with love, they will remain a riddle locked inside an enigma and shrouded by nebulous clouds of wickedly complex wickedness – and, of course, failure and frustration.

At the same time, I like love to think that language acquisition and the pursuit of love share something else in common: a new and renewed sense of wonder, hope and passion. Or, as Mr. Athanasopoulos points out:

 Going back and forth between languages appears to be a kind of brain training, pushing your brain to be flexible.  This mental flexibility pays big dividends especially later in life: the typical signs of cognitive ageing occur later in bilinguals – and the onset of age-related degenerative disorders such as dementia or Alzheimer’s are delayed in bilinguals by up to five years.

Thus, the conclusion we can draw here is clear: If you speak more than one language and you love fiercely, you will live forever.



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