Tag Archives: bilingualism

“What language do you think in?”

I was born and raised in Caracas, Venezuela were the native language is Spanish, and I was lucky enough to attend a bilingual school where I learned English. Ever since I moved to the United States, about eight years ago, when people find out that I speak two languages, they ask which one is my native language, and although I learned both almost at the same time, I had always considered myself more fluent in Spanish; time has changed that. Living in the States has made me as native in English as I am in Spanish. The question that follows is: what language do you think in? To be completely honest, the answer to this question is almost as hard as Dr. Rettinger’s favorite question: Does the tree make a sound if it falls in the middle of the forest? The truth is, I do not know. For the most part I consider myself to think in English when I am in an English-speaking environment and vice versa, but there is always the exception to the rule like when I count in English, once I get to 20 I start counting in Spanish

So while we learned about language in our cognitive class, I thought this would be a great time to see if there had been any research done about bilingualism and which language people think in when they speak more than one language. I found an interesting article that talks about the function of the brain when people switch form one language to the next. While the different languages activated the same exact area of the brain, there was an increase in intensity for when the participants switched languages, and no difference when they switched tasks in the same language. Although the article isn’t exactly about how to detect which language I think in, it most definitely suggests that something does occur when switching language and that given that they activate the same area of the brain, it could be highly impossible to think in two languages at a time.

Interestingly enough, I also found an article that suggests that the way people think changes with the language they are thinking in, or the environment they are in. What I mean by this is that language can activate specific cultural frames and therefore change your personality to some extent. This was shown to be true with Hispanic people and Arabs. Maybe then, it makes sense that I think and congruently act a certain way when I’m in an English speaking environment, as well as a Spanish speaking one.

Overall, bilingualism has been proven to be more beneficial than detrimental, here is a fun video that summarizes a few of them:

Although I did not find much of an answer to my impossible question, I did find a lot of interesting studies about language, more specifically speaking more than one, and how it can affect us without it us even realizing it.

PSA: Even if you are not good at learning languages, explore the world, you will learn so much from it!

Busting Bilingualism

Anyone who knows me should know that I start salivating whenever I even hear the word “language.” Those who know me even better know that I speak 4 languages, some more fluently than others. Whenever I see articles that attest to the fact that those individuals who are talented enough to master more than one language, I can’t help but get a little excited because it makes me feel special. I mean, who wouldn’t? However, is there really a correlation between multilingualism and cognitive performance?

My interest in multilingualism was sparked when I watched this video by a not-too-famous YouTuber. Spoiler alert: she’s not actually speaking those languages, that’s what we in the industry call “gibberish.” So I got to thinking about how she must be cognitively advantaged if she can even feign knowledge of all of those languages. However, a later video of hers disproves this. So I did some research.

An experiment conducted by Simon and Wolf in 1963 put bilinguals and monolinguals to the test in cognitive performance. In their task, participants were presented with a color and a shape on one side of a screen. If the figure was red, they had to push a button on the right side of the keyboard. If it was blue, a button on the left was pressed. The experiment varied in congruent and non-congruent trials where sometimes the color and the side of the screen it was presented on were similar, and sometimes that was not the case. The experiment showed that both types of participants performed equally, disproving that cognitive function was superior in bilingual people. This task was performed with people of varying levels of multilingual proficiency. For example, one trial consisted of native English speakers, native English speakers who also spoke Spanish, and English-Spanish interpreters whose jobs require them to be fluent in multiple languages. All participants performed the same regardless of level of proficiency in multiple languages.

Furthermore, research has shown that the level of proficiency in basic lexical tasks is decreased across languages in bilingual participants. Time and attention are divided between the two languages, so the learner doesn’t go as in-depth into the language as monolingual speakers of the same language do. In a fluency test, participants were given a letter or category and one minute to name as many words as possible either beginning with the letter or in the category. At the end of the minute, bilingual participants showed a much lower total number of words said than their monolingual counterparts.

So the next time you think that learning a language will help you in the workplace, you need to weigh in on the good, the bad, and the ugly of being multilingual. Yes, you’ll be able to communicate with several different types of people, but does the benefit really outweigh the cognitive cost?