If you’re a monolingual with an interest in languages and a smattering of ability in one or a handful of them, you may be interested in a little peek inside the thoughts of someone who’s put in years of slog to passably speak two languages other than their mother tongue. Does it give life any more depth, meaning, opportunity? Read on to find out what one trilingual has to say.
General thinking ability
Well, I can tell you the general day-to-day thoughts are not better formed, by any stretch of the imagination. If there are any improvements in cognition, I’d have to say they only come in exposure to other cultures’ ways of thinking. My two ‘other’ languages are French and Swedish. These are second and third languages, respectively, and learned (in earnest) from the age of 18. I might say I had extra exposure to French living in Canada from 7-9 years old, giving me the confidence and interest to pursue it. (I was also trying to learn Klingon at the time, so my brain may be somewhat predisposed to ‘mimicking speech patterns’, or learning languages). So along the way, on top of my native English culture (both Southern and Northern versions, having lived in both) I’ve observed French’s indifference, its passion, and everything in-between. The Swedish spirit of planning and perfection, coupled with an interesting self-awareness and humour that comes with being a small nation. They have the same population as Greater London, give or take. When they're at home, that is. They seem to travel a lot. They have a great saying: Borta bra, men hemma bäst. A sort of 'home is where the heart is' saying - Being away's nice, but home's best.
I’d venture a cautious estimate that learning Swedish gives you 75% of Norwegian and Danish as a bonus, but the Scandinavian cultures don’t vary as widely as say, English and French. It also gives 25% German, conservatively, and more with study. French opens some 50%, again conservatively, with a little study much more, of Spanish and Italian. So suddenly you find yourself comfortable navigating through and understanding many more things in more countries than you had expected to. So while my thinking (logic, reasoning) hasn’t been directly improved by the fact I can express things in new words, there are some pleasing bonuses that are unlocked as a result of the work. And of course they will last a lifetime, memory permitting.
My main cognitive improvements, ones that I’ve consciously tried to make, would be based more on learning to accept that ‘to err is human’ and using a loose version of the scientific method to keep looking for evidence until a suitable solution, unbiased by my prejudices, emerges. Or a best effort at doing that, at least. This way I’ve removed a few roadblocks and accepted that it can be a long road to learning a language or running a successful business. Particularly in a situation with little support (no trust fund, no connections etc.), self-learning at every stage. This leads to the idea of continuous learning and improvement, possibly inspired by the Japanese kaizen concept.
So I wouldn’t say that you will necessarily get a richer ‘inner life’ with other languages, but it does fall under the umbrella of being open to new experiences that hopefully shape a more efficient, clear thinking person over time. I’m pretty sure reading about concepts in any field in English translation would have exactly the same effect.
This is still a work in progress. Apparently those with more languages, on average, live for longer, in better states of mental health. That we’re yet to prove, and my case could be an edge case if anything untoward were to happen. But there’s no harm in trying to stack the odds in your favour. And it’s not exactly a chore if you like languages.
In my case this has proven true, provided I hadn’t gone into another field earlier in my career. I really like computing, so that could have been an alternative. I might have been better off in that case. But in the case where I wasn’t fortunate enough to fund an education through loans, I would have been worse off. That’s mainly because I work only with language today, though. If I were an employee of Megacorp, I’m not convinced I’d be on that much more money than Bono the Mono(lingual), particularly if Bono were motivated to job-hop, negotiate harder, score bigger bonuses. In my case that potential income has perhaps been replaced by freedom of work hours, through running my own business(es).
Languages need topping up regularly. I’d say constantly, in an ideal world, but at least monthly listens to podcasts, news, reading, writing in the languages you’re trying to maintain. I recently met a PhD student, native in Polish, now struggling to remember vocabulary because English comes to her first after over a decade in the UK. I definitely get frustrated at times when none of the words I know come to me when I need them. Imagine that. Not ideal. Doesn’t make you look too smart either when you can’t remember the word for something as simple as a ‘jug’.
"Could you pass me the... [long pause]... water?"
Slightly less irritating is not being able to remember a common word, like ‘spoon’ in your third language when asked once (by a German, it happens in my case), having lost the word because you haven’t said or heard it in over 5 years, and even when you were learning you didn’t focus on cutlery perhaps as much as you should have. It’s SKED, pronounced shehd, or alternatively with the special Swedish blowing sound if you’re familiar, something like whed. It of course came back to me long after the request and after all the cringing at my own rubbishness that followed.
A framework for learning other languages
I’ll confirm it if you’ve heard it: learning one helps you to learn another, and not just those that are similar (be wary of those claiming 5+ languages natively - that’s a LOT of study - or they’re relying on similarity tricks). I learned English grammar betterer (joke) and can now just about differentiate between moods, tenses, subjects and objects. Cases are a bit hit and miss with me, but German and Latin-ers will be much more up on those. I get them, I just haven’t had much exposure to them.
I still want to learn Chinese (all those symbols and tones!), Korean, Arabic, German, Irish and probably many more besides. But it all takes time, and without the ability to use those similarity tricks mentioned above it will really take time spent in those countries where they are spoken to get up to speed. No time for that right now, but the option is there and hopefully I’d get there quicker, knowing what to look for when learning. I'd also consider which other languages each of the above gives as bonuses, and decide where to focus that way. Chinese will let me navigate Japan by signs, German might give more Dutch, Irish might (just about) help with Welsh and definitely with Scottish Gaelic. And so on.
If I do ‘release the language beast’ again, to focus on one of those languages, let’s just say that I probably won’t be spending too long learning about their cutlery. Sorry, curious German, there’s more to language learning than spoons!