Parlez-Vous? Habla Usted? How a Second Language Makes You Smarter

What is this language?
Image by KateMonkey via Flickr

It’s easier if you grow up in a country where English is not the mother tongue. Or a country with several official languages. In Canada, it’s English and French, so everything you buy across the country is labeled in two languages. Kids there simply grow up with French (or English) right in their face on cereal boxes and aspirin bottles.  If one or both of your parents speaks a second or third language, you may have grown up switching languages as easily as changing your shoes.  There are so many subtle and interesting concepts for which English has no word or even a direct translation and very few foreign-language authors end up translated into English.

Toggling between worlds and the words they express jump-starts the brain in many ways. Patricia Kuhl, co-director of the Institute for Learning and Brain Studies at the University of Washington,  was interviewed today on one of my favorite shows, the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC, and had some fascinating things to say about why it’s worth learning another language. These included “cognitive flexibility” and “attentional switching” — the ease with which your brain can click from one mode to another and back again, values that seem to be in growing demand in our knowledge-based economy that increasingly demands great skill at multi-tasking. That’s not just remembering pain means bread, but having the brainpower to zap back and forth conceptually.

“Kids and adults get into the habit of deciding what language to be using,” she told Brian. They learn that “everything has two different names.” (Well, maybve even 4 or 8 names if you acquire that many additional languages. You’re an ignorant boob in Europe if you only speak two or three.) That’s a mighty powerful choice as it means being able to listen to, and as a result culturally comprehend, a much wider world than English alone can offer.

As a result of mastering a second language, Kuhl says, “kids are faster and more accurate at inventing a solution” to problems. And two of the fastest-growing fields in this sagging economy — health care and education — really need workers who can speak more than English. The U.S. may be a melting pot, but many immigrants just don’t know all the English words they need, certainly in medical emergencies.

I speak French and used to speak Spanish well enough that I worked as a volunteer interpreter, at the age of 20, for political refugees who had been tortured. I learned some really ugly vocabulary doing so, but also felt useful beyond the borders of my leafy college campus. My French skills helped me win an eight-month European journalism fellowship that changed my life forever and for the better. I like this explanation, from a Cypriot language teacher, why it’s worth the effort to learn a second language.

French immersion programs, in some places, are becoming extremely popular for kids. In Canada, anyway, speaking, reading and writing fluent French opens up a world of possibilities, and is required for many government jobs, certainly high-level ones.

If there’s no downside to multilingualism, why do some people still consider it a quirky choice?

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