How Learning Two Languages Can Bring A Change In Our Mental Health And Thought Processes

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By Mayukh Saha / Truth Theory

Language comes naturally to all of us but if we think about it, language is quite a difficult affair. We don’t know how we came to invent it, but it has now changed from a ‘communication tool’ to a definition of who we are. While we can call language a universal creation, it comes with a difference. There are many languages and most of them are starkly different from each other. However, there are certain people who can speak two or more languages. They may have parents from different communities and therefore, they get the influence of both these parents hence we have term bilinguals.

Previously, bilinguals were not looked at with optimism. Many of them were thought to have low IQs. The reason was cultural. Firstly, most bilinguals people in America came as immigrants and became Americans who were poor and so, bilingualism was a symbol of poverty. Plus, it was generally assumed that a good American is someone who can speak English well. If there was a faulty syllogism encountered in speech, then that person was not a good American and was a foreigner. This resulted in many of the countries becoming monolingual instead of bilingual.

However, this has been countered and flipped by a new concept called ‘bilingual advantage’. This was developed by Ellen Bialystok, who is a researcher at York University in Canada. She found out that native bilinguals have shown better cognitive skills than monolinguals. Due to their ability to switch languages easily, they engage in a mental exercise which helps their brain. As a result, they develop dementia fours year later than monolinguals and can recover brain functions much faster after a stroke. They are more capable of carrying out complicated tasks. Another research was the Simon Test, where the participant must click the left button when ‘Left’ command appears on screen, and click the right button when the ‘Right’ command appears on the screen. It starts off easy, until the ‘Left’ command appears on the right side of the screen, and the ‘Right’ command appears on the left side of the screen. Roberto Filippi working in the Anglia Ruskin University found out that the bilinguals were capable to last longer during this test too.

Regarding the theory of the mind, bilinguals performed better than monolinguals. There was a strange experiment done by researchers to prove that. They put three cars of different sizes in front of the children in such a manner that a screen did not allow the researcher to view the smallest car but the children could spot it. When the researchers asked the children to give them the smallest car, bilingual children were able to understand the line of vision of the researcher and hand the smaller car to them, which was not the smallest, but would appear to be the smallest to the researcher.

In most of these mental stimulation tests, native bilinguals fair better. Increased brain functions are much better when it comes to native bilinguals, but people who have picked up a new language can also fair a bit well too. They were able to perform the car experiment better than monolinguals showing a bit of cognitive difference. Also, a second-language speaker can also enhance their thought processes by understanding the different views and knowledge of another person through a different language. Maybe that is the reason why many parents are already enrolling their children in language schools after understanding the benefits of learning a second language.

That language can change thought processes was something proposed long back by 20th century linguists Sapir and Whorf. According to them, learning another language can change the entire worldview of an individual. This was slowly reconsidered by modern linguists, especially after the theories written by Noam Chomsky, who claimed that there are trivial differences between the different languages and there is a kind of universal grammar that is hardwired in our brains. While the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has been contested, many linguists have found out that it is much easier for a Russian to understand the different shades of blue or for anyone to understand the different authoritative roles present in a community through language. However, that is hardly a change in worldview.

Moved by this romantic idea, Conrad began writing in English so as to ‘adopt the genius’ of the language. Beckett too wrote in French, but for him, the reasons were different. He did not find much success in the English language, and resorted to French which gave him more opportunity to experiment and ‘sin against’ the English language. Jhumpa Lahiri is also writing in Italian, though she has already made her mark in her native English language.

It is clear that language is not as easy an affair as we think it is. And it is clearly affecting our brain. So, if bilingualism has so many positive aspects to it, the question is: why don’t we try it out? Maybe that would result in a new rise of an intellectual, bilingual crowd, defining the future of the world.

IMAGE CREDIT: Luis Molinero Martínez

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