Being proficient in more than one language is a massive challenge for our brain and, according to neuroscientists, even ensures that the grey matter grows and becomes better networked. This is relevant for mental performance at the age when we are still in the process of making a career and holding our own in a job.
Nevertheless, it also pays off when we get older and the grey matter begins to shrink, but our mental performance is still needed. Thinking and speaking in more than one language particularly challenges the executive functions of the brain. They ensure that we can concentrate and maintain focused attention.
With multilingualism, the brain succeeds even better in concentrating on relevant information and blocking out irrelevant information – simply because it is geared to maintaining an overview in linguistic confusion and distinguishing the important from the unimportant.
That helps the brain and makes the brain volume grow in the respective areas, similar to how a muscle grows when you train it. As a result, foreign language training also ensures that cognitive performance improves, based on executive functions: flexible switching between tasks, for example, inhibitory control, working memory and attention control. We benefit from this, even more, when it comes to tough and demanding jobs. Which second language learned is irrelevant for this and instead, what matters is how well the language is known, how often we use it, and grammatical accuracy.
Ego cogito, ergo sum, “I think, therefore I am,” once said the French philosopher René Descartes. Descartes, who lived in the 17th century. He wrote numerous texts and books either in his native language, French, or in the language of the clergy, Latin. What he could not yet have foreseen is how language determines our thinking and thus also our culture.
We have scientists at the Max-Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, to thank for the proof that our mother tongue influences our perception of the world around us. For decades, researchers wondered why some cultures do not have words for spatial descriptions such as “right” or “left”, yet people can still orient themselves. The assumption was that they also imagine spatial relationships differently and think of them differently.
Using scientific measurement methods such as EEG and visual field measurement, the researchers launched comparative language studies with native English, German, and Dutch speakers. They found that linguistic structures (here, grammar) that people grow up with significantly influence cognitive processes, for example, how we perceive images or movies. The German and English subjects demonstrated specifically that the native German speakers tended to fixate on and respond to the goal of a storyline. In contrast, the native English speakers tended to pay more attention to the storyline itself.
Anyone who has studied a bit of the English language can understand this: while the progressive form, represented by the “ing” ending of the verb, is frequently used in English, there is no equivalent in German grammar. So, if the next round of negotiations with your English colleagues takes a little longer, that may be because to them, the negotiation is more important than the result. What we perceive as a cultural difference can be better understood and possibly even overcome with language training.