The brain is one complex organ …
There is much about our brains that we do not yet understand; what we do know, is that the way our brains function is determined by a range of factors, including the language we speak. It’s probably not something you’ve really thought about too much – I know I hadn’t given it much thought until recently, during a near-quarter-life crisis conversation with an old friend (last semester uni feels amirite?). Somehow we ended up chatting about a linguist friend of his, who had mentioned that the language we speak, in fact shapes the way we think. Linguistics has always intrigued me, and I knew I had to know more…
Just think about it – why is it that some people view time as behind us or ahead of us, while others see it as to our left or right? Why are some objects considered feminine in one culture, but masculine in another? To think that the language we speak affects how we perceive the world and ourselves within it is, I think fair to say, pretty mind-blowing!!
What is Linguistics? – The Wordy Stuff
To understand how language has the power to dictate the way we think about things, it’s probably useful to be familiar with the basic definition of linguistics – the scientific study of language. Linguistics examines both the structure of a language (formation of sentences, words, speech sounds, and language use) and the perspectives around it, which, in this case, involve neurolinguistics and psycholinguistics. Now don’t be afraid, they may seem like big scary words that is true, but simply put:
- Neurolinguistics is the study of how language is represented in the brain – how and where out brain stores knowledge of languages we comprehend and what happens as we learn and use these languages. This field of study answers questions like how people can switch between languages, and why words may sometimes be “at the tip of our tongue” but other times just “come to mind.”
- Psycholinguistics is neurolinguistic’s sibling – the study of “how we develop, perceive, and produce language” by examining both psychology and linguistics.
Linguistic Features and Their Affects
Nearly 7000 languages are spoken around the world, and yet, we humans seem to have no trouble in universally communicating with each other.
Each language has its own special features, there’s tonal languages like Chinese, where different inflections to the same phonetics can result in a whole different meaning e.g.
(Go on, try not to call your mum a horse)
Chinese is also considered a “futureless language” as the phrasing for what occurred yesterday, is happening now, and that will happen tomorrow, are the same. Compare this with English, a “futured language”, with clear distinctions between past, present, and future. What’s interesting, is that this linguistic discrepancy can actually affect how good we are at saving money. Studies have found that futureless language speakers are 30% more likely to have saved any amount in a year, or have 25% more savings by retirement. Behavioural economist, Keith Chen, proposes the explanation behind this being that,
“when we speak about the future as more distinct from the present, it feels more distant — and we’re less motivated to save money now in favor of monetary comfort years down the line.”
Now, if you’re a fully-fledged adult who still struggles to tell left from right (I must admit, even to this day I continue to make the ‘L’ formation with my hands to be certain), then prepare for what I’m about to tell you.
Certain indigenous Aboriginal languages, such as Kuuk Thaayorre found in Pormpuraaw, require constant spatial awareness to simply communicate. As a result, speakers of these languages possess superhuman-like navigational skills from a very young age. Left and right do not exist. You wouldn’t say “Watch out, there’s a spider on your right shoulder!” You’d say something more like “… there’s a spider on the far southern, most eastern shoulder to the west.” (Now don’t quote me on that, I was just improvising; Kuuk Thaayorre is one language I am certain I will never be able to grasp – heck, I still can’t navigate my way through Brisbane city!
So now we know that language affects our perception of time and space, but what about the more artsy side of things, like colour and music? – You guessed it! Language also affects how we understand and respond to musical stimuli and interpret different colours.
The Zuni speakers of New Mexico for example, have a single word range for the colours yellow and orange, and therefore do not differentiate between the two hues, making it difficult for them to recognize shades of yellow and orange as different colours. Contrastingly, Russian speakers who have two distinct words for light blue (goluboy) and dark blue (siniy) are better able to distinguish between the shades than English speakers. These findings indicate that the way we habitually categorize stimuli in our language affects even basic colour perception and discrimination.
Speakers of tonal languages like Mandarin and Cantonese have a musical advantage over non-tonal language speakers and are more likely to have natural perfect pitch (the ability to recognize a randomly played note). Even musically-untrained tonal speakers are able to recognize tone and pitch similarly to trained musicians.
Bilingualism and the Brain
I can gratefully say that I was raised in a bilingual household, with a Chinese-speaking mother, and an English-speaking father. Although I am able to naturally switch between Mandarin and English, I unfortunately somehow missed out on developing refined money-saving skills or perfect pitch…
As a child, I found it odd that many of my biracial friends could only speak English. When I asked them why, I was told that their parents didn’t want to ‘confuse them’ or cause issues in their ability to master the English language. Despite these claims, English somehow ended up being my best subject and I managed to top the class year after year. Why? Because this old wives’ tale is just that – a tale!
In fact, being able to speak another language actually increases your brain size, improves brain connections, and enhances working memory, attention, and executive function.
“Rather than promoting linguistic confusion, bilingualism promotes improved ‘inhibitory control,’ or the ability to pick out relevant speech sounds and ignore others.”
– Dr. Viorica Marian
See mum, it’s not ‘selective hearing’ – it’s a skill!
But the benefits of bilingualism extend even further, with lifelong bilingualism found to protect against early onset of Alzheimer’s disease by contributing to cognitive reserve. -These benefits highlight the effects on bilingual brains having spent a lifetime negotiating between languages and applying skills to select the appropriate language for an intended context!
If you want some ‘brain gainz’ it’s certainly not too late; researchers at the Umea University found a 3-month intensive language intervention increased development in the brain’s hippocampus – a structure involved with learning new material and spatial navigation, as well as in the cerebral cortex.
When you’re learning a new language, you aren’t merely learning a new way of communicating – you’re opening the door to a whole new way of thinking!