by Louise Taylor
It’s not uncommon for school children to be taught two new languages at the same time, in much the same way that they would be taught different sciences at one time. So why, as adults wanting to learn another language, do we attempt to learn just one at a time? Why not take on the ultimate challenge and tackle two languages at once, allowing the brain to address the translation functionality along the way?
Language learning and the human brain
The human brain is a fascinating topic and one where our understanding of many of the complexities is still in its infancy. There have been multiple studies into the impact of language learning on the brain and not all of the findings agree with each other.
According to some of the most recent studies conducted by experts such as psychologist Judith Kroll from Pennsylvania State University, who studies the cognitive consequences of bilingualism, speaking two or more languages improves the brain’s executive functions. These include planning, problem solving, attention control, inhibitory control, reasoning, cognitive flexibility and working memory.
Ping Li, co-director of the Center for Brain, Behavior and Cognition at Pennsylvania State University, comments:
“We know that if the learning of a new language is successful, key brain regions responsible for handling languages will become activated, but we don’t know how these different regions are connected with each other as a network.”
Those regions of the brain that process the data of learning a second language are already there, ready and waiting to be used – essentially, the brain is pre-wired to handle a second language, it just needs the data to be inserted into it. Learning a second language activates and connects those regions. Put simply, as Ping Li states,
“The brain networks of successful learners are better connected.”
The Penn State team’s findings indicate that handling two or more languages is like a workout for the brain. Judith Kroll observes:
“A bilingual’s two languages sometimes converge, but often they compete.”
It seems that the brain works overtime when it has the choice of two languages, keeping both active at once. This is why a bilingual person can flick from speaking one language to another so fast and without any conscious effort – the brain has two full languages switched on at all times. Or for those who speak three languages, it has three active languages at all times.
Multilingualism around the world
Levels of multilingualism around the world vary significantly. Africa can be considered the most linguistically diverse continent on the planet. Research by Ethnologue has found that 20 of the world’s 25 most linguistically diverse countries can be found in Africa. Altogether, the continent is home to as many as 3,000 distinct languages, according to Epstein and Kole’s The Language of African Literature, as well as hundreds of additional local dialects (by way of comparison, there are just 300 languages spoken in Europe).
Evolutionary linguist Salikoko Mufwene from the University of Chicago, has commented that,
“In the case of Europe, you have to factor in the emergence of various empires, and these various empires were assimilationist and they may have driven a number of languages already to extinction… Traditional African kingdoms were not as assimilationist as the European empires…say the kings relied on interpreters to translate to them what was coming from territories that they ruled but where people spoke different languages, there is no particular reason why we should be surprised that there are so many languages spoken in Africa.”
Africa’s social and political development allowed languages to flourish. While Europeans set about stamping out languages in their desire to build empires, Africa fostered a culture where speaking multiple languages was the norm. As a result, Africans speak a range of Afroasiatic, Nilo-Saharan, Niger–Congo, Khoe, Austronesian and Indo-European languages.
Uganda is a great example of this linguistic diversity in practice. The average Uganda speaks 4.34 languages, according to a 2013 study by Shigeki Kaji of Kyoto University. With no lingua franca, Ugandans grow up needing to speak so many languages in order to conduct their day to day lives.
Meanwhile over in South Africa, there are 11 official languages: Afrikaans, English, Ndebele, Northern Sotho, Sotho, Swazi, Tsonga, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa and Zulu.
Europe, in stark contrast, includes many countries (such as Hungary, Italy, the UK, Portugal and Ireland) where the vast majority of residents are monolingual. Across the continent, some 54% of Europeans are able to hold a conversation in a second language, according to the EU’s 145-page report on Europeans and their Languages. 25% of Europeans can converse three languages including their mother tongue, while 10% can converse in four languages. Luxembourg, Latvia, the Netherlands, Malta, Slovenia and Lithuania are the continent’s linguistic stars, with more than 90% of the population speaking two or more languages.
Learning two languages at once
With such linguistic diversity around us and armed with the knowledge that the brain (we believe) grows and is strengthened by the acquisition of new language, surely then, there is an argument for learning two languages at once?
Looking at this from a practical perspective, there are a number of reasons why such an approach makes sense. Consider Portuguese and Spanish. The spoken forms differ greatly due to the pronunciation, but in written form the two have some striking similarities. Many words are the same and many are similar enough that learning both languages at once seems to take only a little more effort than learning just one of them. The human brain is certainly capable of absorbing and filing words away in different categories, so why not learn at the same time that ‘cat’ in Spanish and Portuguese is ‘gato’ and that ‘mouse’ is ‘ratón’ in Spanish and ‘rato’ in Portuguese?
Learning two languages like this can allow you to develop a greater appreciation of how languages evolve. Often the same root of a word can be found to have developed differently in different languages, but once you make the association between the two it can help with memorizing the variations.
Then there are the words that stand out for other reasons when two languages are learned concurrently. ‘Polvo’ in Portuguese means ‘octopus,’ while in Spanish it means ‘dust’ or ‘powder.’ Thus ‘leche en polvo’ (powered milk) in Spanish can amuse those also learning Portuguese by bringing to mind the image of a milk-filled octopus. Such bizarre imagery can be useful when it comes to remembering (and, indeed, is one of the cornerstones behind the ancient practice of building memory palaces, which is used by some of the world’s top memory champions).
Of course, learning two new languages at once doesn’t have to mean picking two languages that are similar and some experts believe that learning two very different languages is actually easier, as it reduces the potential for confusion between the two as your mind absorbs new words.
Learning two entirely different languages can flex the brain in other ways and also work as an extremely rewarding yet surprisingly achievable challenge. Consider flashcards, which are often used as a means of quickly adding vocabulary into the brain when learning a language. Why not have one set of flashcards with Icelandic words in red and another with blue Afrikaans words, but with the same images on each? Taking in the words on both sets is not much more of a challenge than taking in the words on one set – it’s simply a case of the brain filing the words away in the right place. The association of one colour with one language and another colour with the other language can certainly help this to happen.
The advantages of learning two new languages at once
There are several advantages to learning two new languages at once. The most obvious is (clearly) that you end up speaking two more languages, opening up career options from professional human translation to diplomatic services, but that’s not the only benefit. According to Penn State’s Judith Kroll,
“What we know from recent research is that at every level of language processing — from words to grammar to speech — we see the presence of cross-language interaction and competition. Sometimes we see these cross-language interactions in behavior, but sometimes we only see them in brain data…
“The consequences of bilingualism are not limited to language but reflect a reorganization of brain networks that hold implications for the ways in which bilinguals negotiate cognitive competition more generally.”
If learning one language expands your mind (literally, according to some of the most recent research), then learning two could potentially double the positive effects on the brain. Sharper executive function can mean a more decisive, nimble mind, not only while the languages are being learned but also into later life. Studies have shown that bilinguals are slower to develop dementia, for example, than monolinguals. Again, Penn State’s research bears this out, with Ping Li suggesting,
“This could be due to the constant everyday uses of multiple languages, which involves efforts from a lot of brain regions and their connections.”
Research continues in this fascinating field of study and there’s a great deal more to learn about how and why the brain processes language in the way it does. However, we know enough already to surmise that learning two languages at once is a realistic and achievable goal for anyone with a passion to do so.
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