Guest post: Bilingualism

Janine De Vries

The perks of working and living in a different language

While bilingualism is an obvious asset, having to speak in a second language, usually English, when you have to think and talk smart and fast may be a disadvantage. ‘Non-natives have not one hand, but perhaps a bit of their brains, tied behind their backs’, as The Economist describes (Of two minds, April 9th 2016).

Participating in a discussion, explaining a new strategy, telling office jokes- the right words might not always come to you fast enough, loosing the speed and timing to make your point. Native speakers have the fluency, the vocabulary and the cultural background that brings forth an ease that non-natives miss. However, researchers have found, as non –native speakers may have discovered by experience, being slow and very deliberate has its advantages.

Bilingualism is good for the brain

Deliberate and a slower pace in decision-making makes for better decisions, according to the researchers. Even moral choices and decision-making are influenced by more pragmatic ways of thinking when having to think in a foreign language. In addition there is an increasing body of research that finds bilingual children are better at guessing what is in other people’s heads, whether they, by speaking more than one language- are aware of more perspectives. Another advantage noted is that natives might be stuck in cultural habits sometimes. People with a different cultural background and speaking different languages- the two usually go together- bring new ideas and views to the table. Some ‘disingenuous cluelessness’ might help things move forward: ‘ I’m not sure how things work here, but I was thinking... (‘Of Two minds’, April 9th 2016, The Economist).

Overall, while the fluency of a native speaker may never be attained, the constant mental exercise of thinking and translating at the same time trains the brain in surprising ways. That must be a consolation.