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How Being Bilingual Makes You a Better Thinker

By Mathilde Frot

Updated March 13, 2021 Updated March 13, 2021

The ability to switch between languages at the drop of a hat is often presented in English-speaking countries as a rare gift, one that gives you unparalleled social and cognitive ability — but while Brits and Americans often don’t bother to learn an additional language, it’s actually quite common elsewhere in the world. In fact, experts estimate that over half of the global population speak more than one language, and that number appears to be on the rise.

Speaking multiple languages makes you more rational

How does this ability to speak multiple languages affect your behavior and experience of the world? Polyglots often report they feel like a different person when they speak in another language. They become more impulsive, laidback or even more rational depending on whether they’re speaking Spanish or Mandarin.

A recent study carried out by psychologists at the University of Chicago found that polyglots are more likely to make rational decisions when they think through a problem in their second language. Why? Well, apparently it’s because your native language carries deep-seated bias that may influence how you envision risk.

Professor Boaz Keysar, a psychologist involved in the study, said: “Our new findings demonstrate that such aversion to losses is much reduced when people make decisions in their non-native language.

“A foreign language provides a distancing mechanism that moves people from the immediate intuitive system to a more deliberate mode of thinking.”

Brain imaging research backed up the findings of this study, by showing that the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain used for rational thought, is activated when bilinguals speak in their second language. According to the study, when bilinguals speak in their second language, their brain inhibits their emotions and intuitions, prompting them to make more rational decisions in their second language.

Grammar changes how you see the world

The structure and grammar of a particular language can also shape how you interpret the world. This means bilingual speakers are able to switch between perspectives depending on the language context they’re in.

Evidence of this was found in recent research, which showed that German-English bilinguals interpret events differently based on the language context they’re in. Linguists at Stockholm and Lancaster University asked German and English monolingual and bilingual speakers to describe what happened in a video clip they were shown of a woman walking towards a car.

In their descriptions, English speakers tended to focus on the motion of walking itself rather than the destination. So, for example, instead of saying “a woman is walking towards a car”, English speakers would simply say “a woman is walking”. German speakers on the other hand were more likely to mention the car.

Panos Athanasopoulos, Professor of Linguistics and English Language at Lancaster University, offered a possible explanation for why this might be. “English requires its speakers to grammatically mark events that are ongoing, by obligatorily applying the –ing morpheme: ‘I am playing the piano and I cannot come to the phone’ or ‘I was playing the piano when the phone rang’. German doesn’t have this feature.”

So, while English speakers focus on the action itself, German speakers are more likely to pay attention to its outcome. Meanwhile, bilingual speakers are able to go back and forth between each perspective, depending on the language they’re thinking in.

How do you describe the passing of time?

Language has such a profound impact on the way we think, it can even affect how we visualize time. In a later study, Athanasopoulos and Professor Emanuel Bylund from the Stellenbosch University and Stockholm University discovered that bilinguals perceive the passage of time differently depending on their language context.

Swedish and English speakers tend to describe the duration of a particular event in terms of physical distances (a short break, a long day), while Greek and Spanish speakers visualize the passage of time as a growing volume (a small break, a big day).

To measure this, Athanasopoulos and Bylund asked Spanish-Swedish bilinguals to watch a straight line grow across a computer screen or a container being filled for a set period of time. The participants were then asked to estimate how much time had passed. The study found that bilinguals used volume or distance metaphors, depending on whether they had been prompted in Spanish or Swedish, whether or not they had been shown the line or the container.

Athanasopoulos said: “By having another language, you have an alternative vision of the world. You can listen to music from only one speaker, or you can listen in stereo. It’s the same with language.”

My experience

As a bilingual speaker, I’m not surprised by some of these findings - particularly that language can be so deep-rooted it can actually shape your perception of the world. I was brought up speaking French, but my family moved to England for a year when I was still in primary school. Even though I speak and think in English most of the time, some things are just too ingrained.

For example, I can’t seem to stop myself from gendering nouns and inanimate objects in my head. I think of ants and bananas as intrinsically female. Cats and radiators are male. I also struggle to read bedside stories to my little nephew in English without stumbling over words or switching to French.

Of course, all of this stuff depends on what I’m doing, who I’m speaking to and where I am. The two languages in my head are constantly fighting to hog the duvet, and the smallest thing like a memory or a feeling can give one language an advantage over the other. As I’ve got older, I’ve learned to cherish these idiosyncrasies rather than iron them out. They’re worth it for all the other benefits bilingualism brings.

This article was originally published in March 2018 . It was last updated in March 2021

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I'm originally French but I grew up in Casablanca, Kuala Lumpur and Geneva. When I'm not writing for QS, you'll usually find me sipping espresso(s) with a good paperback.

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