My bilingual brain

This is not a scan of my brain, but it could be.

An MRI of my brain would likely show less activity while processing language than the brain of someone who only speaks English. That is because bilingual brains are fitter – requiring less effort to process words than a monolingual.

Several recent studies also support the multiple cognitive benefits of bilingualism, including the ability to tune out extraneous noise, flexible ways of thinking and, possibly, protection against Alzheimer’s disease.

I did not know any of these things when I began learning French, some 30 years ago, at the Alliance Française in Paris. All I knew back then was that it seemed like a Herculean effort, an impossible task. How could I ever be expected to remember the complex rules for conjugating French verbs, the gender of various objects, not to mention the vocabulary you needed just to get by in day-to-day life?

It’s amazing what the human brain is capable of. The mental gymnastics paid off. Now I can do just about anything in French without really thinking about it, although I still struggle with numbers and have a hard time speaking to dogs and small children in that language.

Along the way, I discovered there are surprising benefits to being bilingual. Here are 5 things I’ve learned:

  1. Selective listening
    There’s no way to become fluent in another language without improving your listening skills. You hone your ability to selectively listen – to pick up accent, identify sounds, understand structure, nuance and tone. And you learn to tune out what is not pertinent to understanding.
  2. Grammar
    Most English speakers have little notion of grammar. That’s because we learn to use our language in context, not by studying its rules of grammar. French is just the opposite. I learned to separate my tenses from my participles and my pronouns from my articles, a skill that holds me in good stead for editing.
  3. Changing perspectives
    This is one is huge. Being bilingual means you become dual in your way of looking at the world. It opens up new understanding and enables you to think outside the box. This breeds an appreciation for other ways of thinking, seeing and doing things. Learning another language forces you to accept that there is more than one way to think about something, even if it is not your way
  4.  Non-verbal signals
    When you find yourself as an adult having to communicate with the skills of a child, you are forced to find other strategies to communicate. One of these is picking up on visual cues – facial expressions, gestures, body language. This is almost as vital as words when it comes to learning not just a language, but a culture.
  5.  Humility
    Learning to speak another language is a humbling experience. Although I have become fluent in French, I often feel humbled. When confronted, as often happens in Switzerland, with those who are trilingual, quadrilingual and beyond. When a small child already knows far more words on a subject than I will ever learn. And when people with limited language skills manage to communicate with smiles and gestures.

When given the choice, I still have a preference for speaking my native tongue. My French will never match my English in its richness of vocabulary, subtlety and mastery of the written word. But I am grateful for having two languages, and for my bilingual brain.


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