Stuff You Should Know's Guide to Proper Adulthood: Why You Should Learn Another Language

Josh Clark


It is thanks to two people living with brain damage in the 19th century, one with epilepsy and one with a stroke, that we understand how we process language. It was after he was able to closely physically study one of his recently-deceased patients, early German neurologist Carl Wernicke found a lesion on a particular region of the man's brain. This lesion was important because, following his stroke, the man could not understand what other people said to him. This must have seemed particularly odd, since tests showed that he had no damage to his hearing, and he could speak as well as before the stroke. But the stroke had removed the man's ability to make sense of the words he was hearing. After further study of the region confirmed that it was indeed responsible for speech recognition, it was named Wernicke's region after its discoverer, and another piece of the puzzle that is the human mind was put into place.

About 10 years earlier, another puzzle piece had been uncovered, this time by a French physician named Paul Broca. Like Wernicke, Broca was presented with a career-making patient who came to be referred to by hospital staff as Tan, since that was the only syllable the man was capable of producing. Tan was able to comprehend what was said to him, and he was interested in communicating. There seemed to be nothing wrong with his cognitive abilities, save for his inability to say anything but "tan," brought on by a lifelong battle with epilepsy. When Tan died, Broca, as Wernicke later would, took the opportunity to crack open his patient's head and inspect his brain for abnormalities. He too found a lesion, this one on a different region of the brain and would, you may have guessed, come to be called Broca's area.

Broca's area is largely responsible for our ability to produce speech, just as Wernicke's area is for our ability to understand speech. Put together, they form the lion's share of our ability to produce and understand spoken language. They provide a specialized function, like other regions of the brain that allow us to process sights and sounds, stand upright without falling over, lift food to our mouths, remove our arms from hot stoves and so on. It is thanks to patients like Broca's and Wernicke's - along with other sufferers of catastrophic brain damage patients, who have shown that while a four-foot-long iron rod through the frontal lobe may remove one's ability to carry on with social niceties, one can still drive stagecoaches for a living - that science came to the understanding that the regions of the brain offer specialized functions.

And yet these areas work together, and that is thanks to something called the tyranny of the frontal cortex. It is this outer layer of the forebrain, the most recently appeared and highest functioning region of the brain, that is in charge of all of the others.

During the course of human evolution, the frontal cortex suddenly arrived on the brain scene like some carpetbagger.Or, better, like some beneficial parasite - a squishy membranous one adhered to the older, ancient parts of the brain. This parasite arrived at some point within the last tens of millennia and plunged its tentacles deep into these older regions, monitored their functions their purposes, and determined the best ways to use them. This parasite ordered the functions into what we recognize as a coherent and, at its best, elegant, order that continues to allow us to build, maintain and navigate human civilization: a new, bigger picture of human existence.

It is with an iron fist that the frontal cortex rules the other areas of the brain, bossing them around to coalesce their disparate functions into a cohesive whole based perhaps entirely on a grand strategy in each individual to survive and, even more, thrive at almost any cost. So, for example, what once would have been disparate sensations of a desire for food, a need for sexual contact and the ability to lift a heavy object in a safe manner may now be combined to produce the idea that, perhaps, the best way to maximize our chances of mating is to deny the short-term satisfaction derived from food and instead engage in a long-term strategy of dieting and exercise to enhance the body's outward appearance and become more attractive to a mate.

Keeping all of these disparate regions from wandering off to chase butterflies or pooping their pants requires a strong leader, and the frontal cortex is that in aces. So great is this tyranny of the frontal cortex suspected to be that it is hypothesized that acquired savantism (another instance of catastrophic brain damage furthering scientific understanding) is the result of a loss of the frontal cortex's grip on a creative part of the brain, allowing some fantastically specialized region to run free and produce unbounded feats of memory and art.

Despite the power of the frontal cortex and the strength of its tyranny, there is still some part of us that is the boss of the frontal cortex, and that part is capable of taking measures to make the frontal cortex even stronger, its processes more refined, if we wish. In short, if we want to, we can make ourselves smarter. And it is here that we, at long last, reach why becoming multilingual is worthwhile.

Well, we've almost come to that point.

For a long time, the United States has tussled with the idea of teaching more than one language in schools. Depending on who we've been at war with and how entrenched their language is in school curricula, the temperature of our national attitude toward multilingual education has gone from chilly to tepid. And, for a long time, it was argued that second languages were a distraction, that they literally distracted the brain from carrying out tasks in a timely fashion, confusing the brain by forcing it to first consider what language it needed to come up with when producing an answer.

In the 21st century, the pendulum has swung almost entirely in the other direction: Multilingualism is closely associated with intelligence and reasonably so. The scientific descendants of Broca and Wernicke tend to agree these days that learning more than one language strengthens the brain's functioning. And it's here that we really do reach why becoming multilingual is worthwhile.

The earlier observers who worried that multilingualism confuses the brain were, it turns out, correct. The regions of the brain that are responsible for recognizing and producing Spanish or Urdu are the very same that process and produce an individual's native language. Language, it seems, is language as far as the specialized brain regions are concerned. It is the sole responsibility of the executive function of the frontal cortex to keep up with what language must be processed and produced in any given situation.

This means, then, that by learning one or more additional languages, you are circumventing the frontal cortex in order to establish a new awareness within the brain - an awareness of, say, German - that essentially expands the amount of information for which the frontal cortex is responsible for keeping track. By doing so, the individual creates what amounts to a workout for the frontal cortex, when compared to the relatively trivial nature of recognizing the context by which a native language must be processed and produced, which the frontal cortex has done practically effortlessly for however many years you've been able to produce and recognize your native language. When you learn another language, you are awakening the frontal cortex, which, despite the awe-inspiring steeliness of its efficiency, ultimately tends toward laziness by recognizing patterns and establishing routines for carrying out its functions. The frontal cortex does not like to reinvent the wheel, you could say. (This is understandable since it likely was responsible for literally inventing the wheel.)

Learning a new language, then, would seem to force the frontal cortex out of its rut, clean the wax and lint from the old sulci. It is the cognitive equivalent of shooting at the ground just in front of its feet and making it dance.

And just like it did with our native language, the frontal cortex should be expected to eventually get better with practice in its new role of negotiating multilingualism. It will find new ruts and routines to fall into. The obvious extrapolation is that when it does, we will be a lot smarter and more adept at transitioning between disparate situations than our monolingual counterparts.

This description is, of course, terribly anthropomorphic and even possibly wrong. While it is based on the latest understanding of multilingualism's effects on the brain and executive function, the scientific investigation into executive function is still relatively nascent. What's been found is promising and makes sense: Multilingual people can move between novel tasks more quickly and pick up to changes in their environment more rapidly; the onset of Alzheimer's comes about five years later for multilingual people. But current studies involve things like measuring how fast kids put colored blocks into boxes and the like; proponents of multilingualism as a means of increasing intelligence (like me) are extrapolating from those kind of observations. And, as Madalena Cruz-Ferreira points out in her blog, Being Multilingual, the whole of the fields of education and psychology pushing multilingualism as a "cure-all" for increasing intelligence seems a lot like the opposite side of the same coin as the former push against multilingualism as a pox on intelligence in the last century.

Perhaps, in other words, we still have it wrong. That's hard to imagine, though. It just seems that we are on the whole a lot smarter than we were in the middle of the last century, but that could just be historical hubris. Still, knowing more, understanding more points of view, learning how other people view where you're from, traveling easily around the world, expanding the available pool of people whom one can get to better know - all of the practical benefits that learning another language can provide - it's hard to add together these factors and not come up with a more intelligent person.

This post also appeared on Motherboard.