group of multilingual people

What Does Being Multilingual Look Like?

Are you multilingual or do you know anyone who is? Article in partnership with Day Translations. Studies found that being multilingual comes with many advantages because the process of learning and acquiring foreign languages drives the brain into different working modes, which are different from the average. This aspect alone is linked to a range of health benefits including the prevention or slowing of degenerative cognitive diseases.

A Look at Multilingual Research

The news website Euronews reported in an article that speaking more than one language has a positive effect on the mind, ultimately making it better at adjusting to new situations and at being future-proof as it can navigate new ideas and deal with uncertainty. The multilingual brain seems to be more capable of coping with new situations and adapt to them. It also has the potential to be more creative and good at problem-solving.

In Europe about 75% of the population speaks a second language or more than two languages. The research on people who can speak multiple languages emerged in the 1990s to study how their brains process memories, make decisions and come up with innovative ideas.

Called “neural architectures”, the brain structure and functions of multilingual people are different from those of people who were brought up speaking only one language. The brain of multilingual people accesses information across its different areas, linking information together from multiple languages, with various nerve cell pathways being activated at the same time. For example, “false friends” or words that sound similar but mean something different in two languages may pop up in a multilingual person’s mind at the same time and then a decision will be made on which of the two words to use in the right context.

Context is so important when learning languages and recalling words, to the point that retrieving information you had memorised a while back during a certain experience will likely be easier if you are somehow recreating that experience, for example by travelling to the country where you first spoke that language.

Do Multilingual People Live Their Lives Differently?

Qualitative research about multilingual psychology collated from interviews and questionnaires reported that being able to speak different languages allows multilingual people to express themselves in more than one way according to the context and environment they are in. For example, some multiligual people may gesticulate more and be more animated in one language while being more concise and formal when they speak in another language.

Multilingual people, according to studies, have their learned languages “on standby” at all times, ready and poised to be used at the right moment. Older theories stated that languages were stored in the brain like in the archive of a library and would only be accessed when necessary, but newer theories found that languages coexist in the brain, like one of those ball pits or pools full of multicoloured plastic balls to entertain children, where each coloured plastic ball represents one language (or a word in a specific language, if you like).

There’s also a whole fascinating area of study looking at people recovering from traumatic accidents who wake up from surgery or after being unconscious either speaking with a different accent or even being able to speak in a different language they hadn’t learnt before.

Considering also how some languages use genders for individual words while other languages such as English have neutral nouns, it is worth observing that explaining concepts in English, for example, can be more inclusive and less likely to perpetuate old-fashioned gender-specific roles and expectations. On the flip side, some languages retain very rich and complex cultural references that are not only difficult to translate but that it would be a shame to lose if we were all to speak English or a common standardised language.

Finally, looking at research into degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and being multilingual, studies found patterns in countries where people speak more than one language the percentage of Alzheimer’s sufferers tends to be lower than average. This can be explained by the protective function of learning a language, which helps the brain stay younger and more agile.