The Big, Busy Brains of Bilinguals

Image result for languages and the brain

In a post titled “Being bilingual alters your brain. Here’s how,” Quartz editorial fellow Frida Garza (@fffffrida) explains how the brain changes on a neurological level when you are able to speak two languages, or as she puts it: “[M]astering two languages can fundamentally alter the structure of your brain, rewiring it to work differently than the brains of those who only speak one language.”

I think it goes without saying that learning a foreign language, if not for professional purposes then for self-improvement reasons, is a good thing. I suppose the same could be said of learning anything in a more general sense, but in my opinion language acquisition strengthens one of mankind’s most important intangible traits: empathy.

Scientists, sociologists, readers and writers have long claimed that the distinguishing factor with reading fiction, for example, is that it increases one’s empathy to the world around them. I guess it comes as no surprise, then, that women make up the majority of fiction readers.

However, this also raises another question that’s long bothered me: Why are non-Quebecer Canadians so quick to drop French at school once they hit grade 10 (the earliest they can do so)? And why do non-immigrants/children of immigrants in the U.S. and Britain rarely speak a foreign language? We have the financial and educational resources, so there’s obviously something else at play. There must be, right?

Consider this: Two-thirds of working-age Europeans know a foreign language, with Luxembourg (the little engine that could!) driving this train forward with a bilingual rate of 99%. Of course, when one of your official languages is Luxembourgish it’s sexyish to be a cunning linguist.

Plus, guess who’s pulling their weight right behind mighty Luxembourg (whose national motto, by the way, is “We want to remain what we are”)? It’s Lithuania and Latvia, coming in at bilingual rates of 97% and 95%, respectively. Alternatively, Italy, France, Belgium and Spain all fall below the EU average in this regard, yet they’re among the wealthiest, most highly educated countries in the European Union.

The kind, kangaroo-loving folks in Oz aren’t getting it much better, where one study found that less than 10% of high school graduates in Australia undertook training or education in a foreign language.

And, as those of us can attest to who’ve lived in Japan and/or Korea, few people there speak English to a level remotely considered “fluent” even though citizens in those two countries collectively spend more money on ESL (English as a second language) education than arguably anyone else in the world.

What the Frankfurter?

On a more positive note, I can say from experience that it’s never too late to learn another language. Unless, like my brother, you were struck by lightning as a child and now must wear a bullet-proof helmet to protect the one hemisphere still firing on all pistons.

Seriously, though, just look at Canada’s former prime minister, Stephen Harper, who took up French studies at an admirable pace once elected PM so that he could field journalists’ questions in a language he essentially started learning in his late 40s. So don’t just sit there and gaze at that language textbook gathering dust on your bookshelf; Harper to it!

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