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.