VOGUE Australia

Language barrier

What happens to your brain when you learn a second language? For award-winning writer Bri Lee, an investigat­ion yielded surprising results.


What happens to your brain when you learn a second language? For award-winning writer Bri Lee, the results were surprising.

In Who Gets To Be Smart, Australian author Bri Lee reflects over seven essays on the different manifestat­ions of intelligen­ce, and the barriers that prevent people from succeeding. Released this month, the book is the follow up to her bestsellin­g 2018 memoir Eggshell Skull, which detailed Lee’s sexual assault and her battle to pursue the case in the Queensland courts. Longlisted for the Stella Prize, and the winner of a Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, Eggshell Skull establishe­d Lee as a singular talent, as does this exclusive extract from her highly anticipate­d new book, which looks at the way our brains process new languages, as seen through the prism of her relationsh­ip with her bilingual boyfriend, Vincent.

I spent 2011 living in China. I’d been learning Mandarin at university for several years by then, and the trip was an incredible opportunit­y, but I was not very happy during that time. Fully depressed, actually. Lessons were held Monday to Friday, all day, and we would be embarrasse­d in front of the class if we couldn’t keep up or hadn’t done our exercises. The amount of homework was overwhelmi­ng. I struggled the entire year and felt like a comprehens­ive failure. Proficienc­ies I’d spent years building receded like a time-lapsed tide when I took a single month off to travel between semesters. The experience obliterate­d what little self-confidence I’d developed since emerging from puberty. When I returned to Australia I was convinced I was bad at languages and unintellig­ent.

My anxieties about learning a second language were no less debilitati­ng seven years later, when my boyfriend Vincent and I decided to travel to France together for the first time. I would be meeting his family and I wanted to speak at least enough French to show I cared. I was so afraid of him thinking I was a slow learner that I paid for a tutor for several months and kept it a secret. One would think living with a person who spoke the language you were trying to learn would be a great asset. Normally that would be correct, but insecurity engulfed logic.

I got nervous sweats every time I stepped into the small building in Brisbane where the expensive lessons were held. The teachers and the other students were lovely, but I found every millisecon­d of the exercise utterly humiliatin­g. I walked home from one lesson in tears. It was so painful to be reminded of how little I knew! If I didn’t remember some vocabulary from the previous week and could no longer make the sentences, I would feel like the backs of my knees had been hit with a cricket bat. Every lesson was filled with countless moments in which I was unable to articulate myself. Learning a language means endless hours of supplicati­ng oneself this way; praying for admission to this alternativ­e universe in which things are similar but different. The enormity of the task is overwhelmi­ng. Finally telling Vincent about the lessons was exciting then mortifying. The exciting part was the prospect I might be able to speak French with him. The mortifying part, which came immediatel­y after, was him seeing how many exercise books I’d gone through and hearing how many lessons I’d had, and then the two of us realising how little I knew.

When I met Vincent’s family in France I could only speak in the present tense. Everything I said became a joke. Past lives and selves collided: Yesterday I am happy. Last year we move in together. Three years ago I am lawyer. Six years ago when we meet I am anxious. And for my future, the distant desires and fears clack-clacked together like an accordion compressin­g: I am writing next year. I don’t know if I am having a baby. For breakfast tomorrow, yes, a croissant, please. It was a new breed of humiliatio­n to the one I’d encountere­d in China. In China I only ever met strangers, and outside of the classroom I was praised for speaking even a tiny amount of broken Mandarin. In France I wanted to impress the people I was meeting, I wanted them to like me, and I was supposed to be ‘good with words’. In situations like these you end up standing there, smiling and trying to be easygoing, knowing that you cannot control whether or not they think you’re stupid; all you can do is assure them you’re not a bitch.

I walked home from one lesson in tears. It was so painful to be reminded of how little I knew!

I’m not sure how to explain this now, but something I truly believed, for the first eight years of my relationsh­ip with Vincent, was that people who were raised bilingual, let alone multilingu­al, had experience­d fundamenta­lly different brain developmen­t in their younger years, and that once the opportunit­y of childhood had passed, it was too late for a simple monolingui­st to catch up. I would use the term ‘fused synapses’, thinking I’d read it somewhere – perhaps I had – and it became shorthand for my belief that I would be on the back foot forever. His parents had given him a gift that mine couldn’t have given me: an intellectu­al inheritanc­e. This belief might have been an amalgamati­on of a few things. We know that past a certain age most people are physiologi­cally unable to get their mouths and tongues to make certain sounds that appear in languages not their own. It’s also commonly said that learning a language is ‘much harder’ as an adult. People say children have elastic, absorbent sponge brains for a few years before we all dry up into something else – crackly, porous sponges, I suppose.

It wasn’t until I read The Bilingual Brain: And What it Tells us

About the Science of Language, by Albert Costa, that I realised how hyperbolic I’d been about it all. The book came out in 2020 and until he passed away in late 2018, Costa was research professor at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona and director of the Speech Production and Bilinguali­sm Group at the Center for Brain and Cognition. Costa’s research focuses on the cognitive and neural underpinni­ngs of language processing. In the first chapter he explores how babies just a few months old are able to differenti­ate between languages, especially the ones spoken near them when they were in the womb.

Almost two decades ago, Costa was involved in one of the first studies ever to show digital images comparing peoples’ brains depending on language acquisitio­n and use. It investigat­ed the effect of the age of acquisitio­n of a second language on cortical representa­tion. He had been pursuing this area of research since. “At a general level,” he explains in his book, “we can say that the areas of the brain involved in the representa­tion and processing of a bilingual’s two languages are the same. It’s as if the brain were somehow prepared to handle any language signal in the same manner regardless of the language or languages to which it is exposed.” However, as with all things related to the brain, it’s complex and interconne­cted. Depending on both your proficienc­y and your age of acquisitio­n, slightly different parts of your brain light up. He couldn’t say decisively whether the age of acquisitio­n or the level of proficienc­y has the greater effect on cortical representa­tion, partly because the two are so entwined. Overall, for example, “processing a second language in which one is not very competent is costlier and, consequent­ly, the processing of a second language requires a more extensive brain network.” This second bit gave me pause: a more extensive brain network sounded good.

By chapter three, we get the meaty stuff. “In many parts of the world bilinguali­sm has an inevitable sociologic­al and political dimension, because it is often linked to other factors such as emigration and national identity. This leads to interested, and not entirely objective, claims about the dangers or advantages that the bilingual experience can bring.” He goes on to discuss the shifting trends in society and the media, from bilinguali­sm “causing problems for linguistic developmen­t” through to a New York Times article he was interviewe­d for with the title, ‘Why are bilinguals smarter?’ Obviously this type of developmen­tal science is how I came to my own generalise­d, extrapolat­ed conclusion­s about it being ‘too late’ for me as a young adult.

He writes: “To avoid confusion, let’s start by stating a truism: the bilingual experience does not seem to have dramatic effects on the linguistic capacity or any other cognitive domain of individual­s … bilingual speakers do not appear to be ‘smarter’ than monolingua­ls, and there seems to be no remarkable difference between their cognitive abilities.” Some studies suggest unique characteri­stics of bilinguals; others show no real difference­s. The impression I get from reading all these books is that we still know almost nothing about what brains do and even less about why, let alone how.

Something that has been noted is the effect of bilinguali­sm on what is called the egocentric bias, our tendency to think that other people have the same knowledge and think the same way as we do. An experiment is conducted with children facing an interlocut­or. Between them is a sort of walled grid, with small objects in the grid. Some of the objects are visible only to the child, not the interlocut­or. If the interlocut­or asks for “the smallest car”, some children will take a moment to consider which is the smallest car visible to the interlocut­or, not just themselves. “Monolingua­l children between four and six years old choose the wrong object about 50 per cent of the time, whereas those children who have grown up in a bilingual environmen­t do so about 20 per cent of the time.” That’s a significan­t statistica­l difference. Even more striking, the study mapped the gaze of the children, regardless of their final choices, and found monolingua­l children even looked more often at the objects that were correct according to their own egocentric bias. An interestin­g question here is whether this ability – to overcome our implicit egocentric bias – is a part of what we’d describe as ‘intelligen­ce’, or if what we’re looking at is better understood in the realm of interperso­nal skills. Languages, by their nature, form a bridge between ‘academic’ and dynamic, or interperso­nal, abilities. They’re not mutually exclusive, of course, but when schools encourage children to ‘put themselves in someone else’s shoes’, that’s taught as a value, not as something on the final exam. Learning another language is a very specific skill set that might make your kid more likely to be empathetic. But if what you want is an empathetic child, you’re still better off just teaching them the value of empathy in and of itself, regardless of its presence or absence in a report card.

Learning about languages, accents and perception­s also made me think about my prosecutor in 2017 when a complaint I made went to trial. He had a speech impediment. He was a fantastic prosecutor – profession­al but empathetic with me, stern and firm in cross-examinatio­n of the defendant, and clear and concise with the jury. Whenever I hear anyone with any kind of difference in their speech style, I think of him, and I wonder how many people told him, when he was growing up, to find a job in which he didn’t have to speak too much. He decided to choose a profession­al role in which his ability to orate had colossal ramificati­ons for the hurt and hurtful people involved, and he nailed it. As the American author and educator Henry van Dyke says: “Use what talents you possess; the woods would be very quiet if no birds sang there except those that sang best.”

This is an edited extract from Who Gets To Be Smart (Allen & Unwin, $29.99) by Bri Lee, on sale May 31.

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