Multilingualism and Changes to How One Thinks

For the past two years I spent six hours a day in a small classroom with five to seven other service members learning Arabic (for 14 months) and French (for 8 months). Over the course of those two years, I learned about 3,000 new words in each language. Looking back, I learned more than languages during those 24 months.

Experts have already established benefits of being multilingual, including physical changes to the brain and changes in the way the brain works. A 2015 TED Talk, “The Benefits of the Bilingual Brain”, highlighted some of the physical changes, including a higher density of grey matter containing synapses and neurons. This sort of growth physically strengthens the brain, possibly delaying the onset of dementia by five years. In the same talk, Mia Nacamulli argues that adult learners of a second language exhibit more rational thought and less emotional bias in their newly learned language. An earlier 2013 report by the Journal of Neurology attributed bilingualism to improved executive functions such as switching between tasks, filtering out irrelevant information, and even conflict resolution.

However, I found that learning a new language changed my logical processes. It’s not just about learning new words and new grammar rules. It is about comprehending entire ideas quickly: understanding what is being said, filtering out what you don’t understand or what is not relevant, translating that understanding from one cultural context to another, and applying it to the situation (in real time). I did that daily for two years. Here are four lessons I learned (in English):

1) You can fill in the gaps of what you don’t know with what makes the most sense. Often when reading or listening, you will come across a word that you have never seen or heard. Based on context, we can make a pretty good guess at what that word means. Intelligence analysts do this often on the battlefield. They get reports about terrorist X and insurgent Z and they can make a pretty accurate guess about their cousin Y based on the intelligence they already have on him.

2) Break down difficult problems into manageable ones. Most Arabic words can be broken down to a three letter root verb. I may have never seen the word before, but based on a few simple rules, I can figure out that the word is the indirect object of a certain verb (for example). The lesson is: when you encounter a complex issue that you do not understand, break it down into smaller problems that you do understand. Israel-Palestinian Peace? COMPLEX issue. Cross border violence, return of refugees, Arab-Israeli rights, status of Jerusalem, etc? Smaller, more manageable problems.

3) Be wary of false cognates (or false idioms). A simple example in French is the word “assister”. It means “to attend” in English, not assist. Amusingly “attendre” means “to wait”, not “to attend”. These are pretty common in the Romance languages. The broader lesson is that we should not apply our understanding of our circumstances to the circumstances of someone else, somewhere else. Chamberlin’s and Hitler’s “peace in our time” deal is an oft-cited warning to squash any hint of appeasement during negotiation. However, not every case of appeasement is going to result in another Holocaust.

4) Sometimes in listening to a foreign language, one can miss the entire second half of the sentence. It simply was not heard, or not understood. However, based on your understanding of the author’s tone and a key transition word (“however” or “therefore”), you can make a pretty accurate prediction of what he said in the second half. The lesson is that if you understand what is happening, and the current atmosphere, you can make a pretty good prediction of what will happen next. For example, if you watched the Arab Spring and you thought peaceful democracy would flourish afterwards, you did not understand the atmosphere in Egypt, Syria, or Libya.

In summary, we change what we think or why we think something upon learning new information. I found that learning a new language changed how I thought. That is just one more reason to learn a foreign language.

Captain Joshua McCarver is a Foreign Area Officer in the United States Army. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of the Department of Defense.