Through staving off dementia symptoms, boosting brainpower and even being a different version of yourself, speaking many languages is a great strategy for life, argues a new book from Viorica Marian

Speaking more than one language does wonders for the brain

AT THE paediatrician’s clinic, a nurse told Viorica Marian, a native speaker of Romanian, to use only English with her US-born daughter. Speaking another language would “confuse” the child and hurt her long term, the woman said. This happened more than a decade ago, yet it is still common advice for immigrants in the US. It is also completely wrong.

In her new book, The Power of Language, Marian – a Moldovan-US linguist – draws deeply on research, some of it her own, most recently at Northwestern University in Illinois. She explains how language operates and how we can harness languages to enrich our lives, as individuals and societies. She makes a convincing case that being bilingual – or better still, multilingual – can work wonders for the brain.

When people who are bilingual use one of their languages, she explains, the other one is active, in parallel, in their brains at the same time. As a result, the executive control system, which keeps us focused on what is relevant, is constantly honed. Just as exercise changes our bodies, this mental activity rewires the bilingual brain.

A buff executive control system gives bilinguals certain cognitive and social advantages even at a young age – they are good at multitasking, for instance. And if they go on to develop Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia, writes Marian, the onset of symptoms occurs five years later on average compared with their monolingual peers with the same anatomical change to the brain.

“If the brain is an engine, bilingualism may help to improve its mileage, allowing it to go farther on the same amount of fuel,” writes Marian. And the benefits aren’t exclusive to people who were raised bilingual: they are also seen in those who learn a second language later in life. It is, the author emphasises, really never too late – or, indeed, too early – to start learning another language.

Because language and culture are intertwined, bilinguals may have different mindsets for each language. “Just as H2O can be a solid, a liquid, or a gas depending on temperature, a person can be a different version of themselves depending on which language they are using,” she writes.

The idea that various versions of the self can coexist in a speaker of many languages seems too romantic even to a bilingual like me, so let us consider some plainer ramifications.

For instance, writes Marian, when people who are bilingual in Mandarin and English were asked to name a successful woman with physical disabilities, they were more likely to mention US author Helen Keller when they were speaking English and Chinese writer Zhang Haidi when speaking Mandarin. They knew both answers, but what came to mind depended on the language they were using when asked.

This doesn’t just apply to hard facts. The finding that the accessibility of memories varies across languages has implications for interviewing bilingual witnesses in legal cases, writes Marian, who has been an expert witness in a legal case involving questioning a bilingual person.

Similarly, when providing psychotherapy (see page 38), therapists must be aware that the likelihood of a bilingual client remembering something rises if you are using the same language that was used when the original event occurred, says Marian.

The majority of the world’s population is bilingual or multilingual, she reports. Yet speakers of dominant languages – associated with countries with more economic power – seem less keen on learning a new language, Marian points out wryly, perhaps because the consequences of multilingualism are minimised, misunderstood or even politicised.

This book comes packed with evidence-backed insights about the power of language. And the “codes we use to think, speak, and live” – reflected in the subtitle of the US edition – makes for an endlessly fascinating topic.

After reading this book, you might want to download a language-learning app or sign up for a language class to expand your linguistic horizons.

Vijaysree Venkatraman is a writer based in Boston, Massachusetts