This is Your Brain on Languages

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Sean Lynch, head of school of the Lycée Français de New York (LFNY), Ellen Bialystok, cognitive neuroscientist, research professor at York University in Toronto, discuss the effects of knowing two (or more) languages on the brain.

What's your experience with being bilingual?  Does it add confusion or clarity to your thinking?

Comments [31]


I love languages, I speak 4 languages and i'am proud if my self,having that ability to speak more than 2 languages is awesome and great advantage.

Apr. 15 2013 09:52 AM
Valeria from Santiago, Chile

I love languages and I always wanted to speak more than one. I went to a British-Chilean school as a child and I lived in Australia as an adult for 2 years and I got fluent in English, and now I am learning French (just for fun). In my country, is a big PLUS to speak another language (specially English). But, probably because English is now the common language (political, economic, cultural reasons) I guess that many native English speakers are not interested in speaking a second language, because everywhere they go people would HAVE TO speak English. I think that's maybe very easy for them, but a second language is not only pragmatic. For example, anytime a "gringo" (American) come to Chile and try to speak Spanish (even if is a bad bad Spanish, even if is only a few words) people fells respected and they are even more friendly and helpfull with him/her. Another example: For me, there is nothing more fun and fullfilling than read a Nick Hornby's novel in its original language. I am going to Europe on a trip soon and I can't wait to order my food in French. Even if I get a bad look for speaking it badly hahahahah it will make my trip more fun.


Apr. 14 2013 08:33 AM

mia from tribeca expresses the grounding behind the learning of Esperanto and the practice of that language around the world: a common second language for all brings everyone together on a neutral plain of communication without one speaker holding fluency over the other.

Apr. 13 2013 06:26 PM
kika from Santiago-Chile

Languages were always easy for me, but when I had to leave Chile because of the military coup in 1973, it was a major and welcome need. It did make my life easier, better, fuller and intellectually richer, and I guess my finance too, together with my profession. Travel was a great fun, the only languages I could get but a few words were the oriental ones, and Turkish. Now I am Reading and learning Portoguese (on my own, at my slow, retired pace)

Apr. 13 2013 05:31 PM
Madeline from Gaithersburg, Maryland

I am fluent in seven language and have conversational ability in another six, I am a native American language English speaker who grew up in an English speaking home. I sometimes wonder if my abilities are genetic as I had a cousin who knew 17 languages. I worked very hard but it was somehow easier for me than other students and I enjoy plugging vocabulary into grammatical formulas. I am older now, in my mid-fifties and it is not as easy as before so I have to keep at it if I am going to beat my cousin!

Apr. 11 2013 04:53 PM
lafou from bowling green

"A different language is a different vision on life."
--Federico Fellini

Apr. 11 2013 10:12 AM
lafou from bowling green

"A different language is a different vision on life."
--Federico Fellini

Apr. 11 2013 10:12 AM
lafou from bowling green

"A different language is a different vision on life."
--Federico Fellini

Apr. 11 2013 10:06 AM
lafou from bowling green

"A different language is a different vision on life."
--Federico Fellini

Apr. 11 2013 10:06 AM
lafou from bowling green

"A different language is a different vision on life."
--Federico Fellini

Apr. 11 2013 10:05 AM
Katie P from NYC

I have studied 4 languages. I am fluent in english my native tongue but remember a ton of gaelic from age of 4. When in Ireland I can pick it up again due to bilingual country. I learned french from age 10 & I'm fluent after living in Paris for 7 years. French teach told me stay 4 years you will never forget it. I learned spanish as it interested me & then had a spanish speaking BF so made me more fluent. Nothing replaces living in a country to gain fluency.

I travel the world and learn simple things in every language... hello, thanks, order food. It's been 25 years but I can still remember how to ask for food in Thai or Italian. Any words in a local language endear you to the local people.

I find my capacity for languages makes my mind sharper & more efficient. I think there's an association with language & music yet I don't think I am that musical butt haven't tried. I think it's a right brain left brain thing too & many men in my experience find languages harder to learn. Being multilingual makes me a better writer in english as I am used to looking for multiple ways to say the same thing. I decided years ago the main thing was to keep speaking even if it wasn't right people correct you. As an au pair in paris, the children used to laugh but I learned from them. The radio is also an excellent source for learning another language when you have a base as you do not have any visual guides so you think more.

Apr. 11 2013 12:24 AM
Wayne from Douglaston, NY

If you can't read a major newspaper of a particular language effortlessly without constantly checking a translating dictionary, chances are you are not "lingual" in that language.

Apr. 10 2013 04:36 PM
Eugenia Renskoff from Brooklyn, NY

Hi, I was born in Argentina, speaking Castilian Spanish. In America, I learned English. When I was in danger of losing my Spanish, I would talk with my mother in Spanish, read newspapers from Argentina (this was before the Internet) and watch soap operas in Spanish. I am very glad that I did not lose my native language. When a person is an immigrant, it is very easy to forget the way he/she spoke as a child in the old country. Speaking 2 languages teaches you different cultures, different ways of doing things. Eugenia Renskoff

Apr. 10 2013 04:16 PM
Tina from Queens

My first language is Romanian, my second a Macedonian (latin) dialect, my third French, my fourth Greek.
I left Romania at age 24, after college, so, obviously, I was having a very good command of Romanian. My vocabulary in Romanian AND English is extensive and beyond, compared to what I hear in other people.
I attribute it to the fact that I am an avid reader in both Romanian and English.
I used to be in French, but I lost it because I don't use it as frequent.
So, I think, one can have an extensive vocabulary in two languages.
I attribute it to the fact that once one speaks a latin language, it makes it easy to learn English, since contemporary English, in my opinion, (based on empirical, totally unscientifical observation) has been enriched to about 65-70 % latin origin words.
I once wrote to Merriam-Webster, asking them if they would be able to count all the words of latin extraxt, since they have it online (it would actually take a very simple program) but they told me they didn't have the funds.
I am curious what is other people's opinion on this.

Apr. 10 2013 12:17 PM
Jacqui from Cold Spring Harbor, NY

I grew up bi-lingual, English/German, learned Italian by age 5, and have managed to acquire 9 additional languages. Potential employers view me as an oddity, as if I were a collector of figurines. They cannot fathom the advantage of speaking more than one, or possibly two languages. However, speaking more than one language makes it easier to acquire additional ones, and enhances mental agility. I believe very strongly in early language education.

Apr. 10 2013 12:08 PM
Amy from Manhattan

A friend who went to a non-English-speaking country for the 1st time as an adult compared it to having the operating system switched on her. Maybe there's something to that!

Apr. 10 2013 12:06 PM
Tony from Canarsie

I've been studying Italian for many years, and I can't recommend it enough to anyone interested in puns, slang, insults and other ribald wordplay.

Has it made me any smarter? Non ancora!

Apr. 10 2013 12:00 PM
r_bert from brooklyn

here's an in depth conversation on this:

Apr. 10 2013 12:00 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

My mother could speak or understand 5 languages, but admitted she never read a book in her life, but that was common in her part of the world where Yiddish, Russian, German, Polish, Ukrainian, Czech were all spoken in the market place.

She certainly thought different than most people. A yiddish version of Margaret Thatcher, is the best way I can describe her. A beautiful Iron Lady, always right, never wrong, and devoid of doubt with steely green-grey eyes. Always the center of wherever she went. And very more often than not, really right.

Apr. 10 2013 11:59 AM
ied from nyc

I teach Spanish and I find that some students from Spanish speaking families resent taking Spanish. I this common with other languages?

Apr. 10 2013 11:58 AM
Truth & Beauty from Brooklyn

My observation has been that there are two types of bi/multi-lingual people: (1) those who naturally learn languages well, and (2) those who have no choice but to learn a second language but have no special aptitude for it.

I believe the latter will always be somewhat limited in vocabulary in all the languages they speak. The former can more easily pick up languages as adults and learn the languages more thoroughly.

Also, I believe (again, from observation) that learning languages has very much to do with language/hearing memory as opposed to any kind of mathematical or other ability. Language-learners remember words and sounds easily.

Apr. 10 2013 11:58 AM

americans are idiots. so-called liberals, so-called journalists, who only speak one language. what clowns. In africa, everyone speaks at least 5. still human beings there though...

Apr. 10 2013 11:57 AM
Amy from Manhattan

I'm bilingual in English & Spanish, & I can tell that my mind makes connections in each language that it doesn't make in the other, & makes me aware of connections between words in the 2 languages. This increases the number of possible connections overall &, I think, makes me open to different ways that statements in both languages can be understood.

Apr. 10 2013 11:56 AM
Megan from Brooklyn

I grew up in an English home in the 85%francophine city of Montreal and have known since I was a child that I think different
my than my unilingual counterparts. As a very minor example, my name, very popular in much of North America, was very uncommon in Quebec. I can look at my name and see it in both lights, giving me a double-entendre for both my unique/common name as well as many aspects of francophone and anglophone cultures. Imagine how that plays out for my whole vocabulary! It's very nuanced and interesting for us bilingual folks!

Apr. 10 2013 11:53 AM
Capper from NYC

How might this affect kids in dual language programs at early ages. Where, they learn one language one day (not spoken at home) and English the next.

Apr. 10 2013 11:52 AM
Jenny from Manhattan

What level of fluency constitutes bi- or multi-lingualism?

Apr. 10 2013 11:52 AM
Steve M from Morristown

Born to two Italian immigrants and raised in an Italian section of Newark, NJ. My first language was Italian and I learned English upon entering pre-K.

Having that ability to hold two words in two languages, actually having two place holders for the same words in two languages is a great advantage.

Allows for improved cognitive reasoning

Apr. 10 2013 11:52 AM
mia from tribeca

There would be less prejudice and less war if we were all bi-lingual. I speak 2 fluently as mother tongues and speak 2 others well.

Apr. 10 2013 11:51 AM
Greg from SoHo

Antonio, I was going to ask the same thing!

Apr. 10 2013 11:50 AM

does the language of math count?

Apr. 10 2013 11:49 AM
antonio from baySide

Do programming languages count?

function greeting(){
alert("hello world!");

Apr. 10 2013 10:38 AM

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