What Learning a Language Does to Your Brain: Multiple Selves

Most of us are aware that language can serve as a powerful force for forming an identity on a national or regional scale, but in an increasingly connected world where the idea of global citizenship has slowly become more familiar, language and identity may not solely be connected to nationalism or cultural preservation. It can shape how the individual experiences and expresses thoughts and feelings that aren’t abundant in their native language.

In my previous post, I compared learning a foreign language to a game of imitation. Language learning as imitation is something I first heard during one of my summers at Middlebury College’s language schools. The school would bring guest speakers for seminars specializing in Japanese culture and language acquisition. In the summer of 2011, the speaker that was invited for a talk was professor Yukiko Hatasa, a researcher in the field of second language acquisition, focusing on how foreigners learn Japanese as a second language. What struck me the most about her talk was how she suggested that learning a language is not only a game of imitation but a process of identity formation.

A more simple, non-linguistic example, is when people enjoy listening to foreign music even if they don’t understand the lyrics. They may associate it with a TV show, a movie, or a musical group, but it's the relationship between media and song that elicit affect, often times independent from the meaning behind the lyrics. Through this process, they may end up tapping into an emotion or rhythm uncommon in their country or culture. This is to say that the individual isn’t merely assimilating the foreign piece of music just as they would with one in their own language, they’re experiencing a wider degree of affect through their exposure to it that would otherwise be left untapped.

Learning a foreign language works in similar ways, albeit more abstract, with potentially deeper influence on a psychological level. Think about how many times you’ve heard sentences begin with: “The [insert nationality here] have a word for it…” This is a recognition of valuable knowledge, but learning a language firsthand makes subtle changes in the way you conceptualize ideas, and these changes quickly add up. Absorbing words, sayings, sentence structures, linguistic peculiarities as well as the culture attached to the language can have a profound effect on how you see the world around you.

Gender and the self

How would you feel if suddenly what you usually associated with the feminine is suddenly inverted?

If you’re a Spanish speaker and start learning English, you begin to see a gender neutral world that can feel impersonal and even methodical. Flip the situation around and you’ll notice how English speakers start experiencing a world where everything has a gender, including objects, and how you feel about a particular gender assignment may make you think of something in a new light. Vehicles and boats are often talked about in English as female entities, yet in Spanish, a car and a boat are male nouns. How would you feel if suddenly what you usually associated with the feminine is suddenly inverted? If you’re a man, how do you think a woman would feel if she referred to her guitar or car as a "she" and not a "he"? The difference in language may have given you an opportunity to see that other point of view, you just experienced an emotion that you wouldn’t otherwise experience. You have begun creating an alter-ego, another self that is permitting itself to experience a wider degree of emotions.

Ambiguity in human relations

When you immerse yourself in a language that permits more ambiguity, it can be frustrating at first, but edifying once you accept it. You open yourself to discern other’s thoughts and feelings by putting yourself in their position.

Another example of new perspectives through foreign language acquisition is how cultures handle clarity and ambiguity differently. A typical comment I’ve received from professors is the lack of clarity in my writing. This wasn’t due to grammatical errors confusing them. Instead, they were very puzzled by how I left sentences open to interpretation. I admit that there were many occasions where this really did impede understanding – it left readers wanting more, almost as if they were being teased, not ideal for academic discourse. Sometimes, though, I wanted to leave some statements open to interpretation. My intention was to leave the reader thinking of possibilities before I state my opinion.

Those same professors would be horrified if they saw how Japanese handles ambiguity. Even in academic writing, it’s acceptable to leave sentences open to interpretation, with a softer voice of suggestion being the sign of opinion. There are also some additional writing conventions in Japanese that can seem quite odd to Westerners, particularly the omission of verbs. This is particularly confusing when reading newspaper headlines where the title can read something like: “Construction of new hospital, healthcare for the elderly will […],” I purposefully inserted three dots there because otherwise, you might think I left something out by mistake, but no, that’s what a headline could read like in Japanese. Given the context, you could complete the sentence with “improve” or “expand,” the reader is being brought into the discussion.

Being exposed to a language that embraces ambiguity can be frustrating, especially in North America where such style of expression is only reserved for poetics and literature, not everyday discourse. Simplicity and certainty of the speaker’s intentions are highly regarded values – uncertainty becomes scary or merely undesirable, an annoyance. This says a lot about how we deal with vagueness in human relations. When you immerse yourself in a language that permits more ambiguity, it can be frustrating at first, but edifying once you accept it. You open yourself to discern other’s thoughts and feelings by putting yourself in their position. A separate ego begins to take form, better equipped to deal with the natural uncertainty in human relationships. In a world where we continually search for certainty, we tend to lose sight of the true nature of human relationships: one can never truly know another person’s thoughts or feelings, and in Japanese culture at least, it’s considered presumptuous to think that you can. Ambiguity is a sign of respect for the sanctity of the inner self, and immersing yourself in a language that embraces uncertainty can give you the opportunity to be more cautious about assuming what other people feel. You have the chance to tap into a more mindful persona that tries to hold dear other’s feelings.

Human beings can crave emotion and self-identification almost to a fault. Look at any soap opera viewer and you see an intense game of engagement that’s almost scary. Lack of identifying with the other is what often leads to apathy about their troubles and grievances, leading people to prioritize their needs over the needs of another. When you have nurtured the formation of multiple selves, this becomes harder and harder to do, because a part of the other is already within yourself. Language can be restrictive, but it doesn’t have to be. Learning other languages can let out parts of ourselves that were hidden inside of us. In other words, it has the power of making us more complete individuals, experiencing a wider array of emotions and intellectual viewpoints.

Next time, ask yourself this: is your ego in Swahili or Chinese different? Is it louder? More reserved perhaps? Does it just imitate the culture associated with the language or is there something more? I believe that for the increasing number of third culture individuals, identity formation begins to go beyond borders and national identity. These people tap into something else when expressing themselves in another language, and that is basically the process of connecting to another you. We’ve also seen this play out in countries where they accept diversity as a unifying feature of their national identity, but soon we might be moving towards a world that will go a step further.

This isn’t to say that learning a foreign language is the only way to achieve this, people listen to pop songs and arias even if they don’t understand the lyrics, they read stories of faraway lands and the hardships of individuals less fortunate than themselves. Art, literature, music, film, and media are powerful tools that permit us to explore thoughts and desires we wouldn’t otherwise experience in our daily life, whether it’s through rhythm, voice or storytelling.

So go ahead and tap into something foreign. Whether it’s another language or a book whose character differs from you in nationality or gender. Through this, you’ll foster the growth of multiple selves, making you more human than ever before. If you feel uncomfortable every time you attempt to do this, consider asking yourself what you are frightened of when trying to have a little part of the other grow within you.