We live in narrow-minded times, wherein insularity and nationalism are pervasive in public discourse. If you’re among the many people looking for ways to take political action, one of the most effective things you can do is devote yourself to learning a new foreign language.
Learning a new language is a way to foster community and understanding between people of all political persuasions and nationalities. This can act both as a potent corrective force to any tendencies of narrow-mindedness we may be harboring, and as a form of political resistance. It’s a concrete action that all of us can take to move the needle toward a more just and open-minded mentality.
To understand why this is the case, it’s useful to consider all the ways in which learning a language helps steel us against the prevailing small-mindedness of our times.
Though we speak our own language all the time, we don’t tend to notice how it works until we learn another one. Until then, we lack the necessary perspective: As the German poet Goethe said, “Those who know nothing of foreign languages know nothing of their own.”
When we learn a second language, all the “decisions” our language invisibly makes for us becomes visible. We notice how our way of describing the world is just one of many, and that there is a dazzling variety of ways in which we could see the world if we had the language to do so.
This shows up in the smallest details. For instance, Russian considers light and dark blue to be separate colors—as we might red and orange. As you learn to speak Russian, you are obliged to pay attention to this distinction and begin to categorize your experience differently, simply due to the language. This idea that the structure of language determines how its speakers experience the world is known as the Sapir Whorf hypothesis, named after two early-20th-century linguists who proposed the idea.
As another example, consider how we use different words for fingers and toes in English. Not so in Slavic languages, which make do with one word for both. In learning them, you get used to the idea that your toes are in fact foot-fingers, a subtle reclassification that nonetheless makes you experience the sheer fact of your embodiment differently.
Few modern scientists have done more to advance our understanding of how language influences thought than Lera Borodisty, a professor of cognitive science at the University of California, San Diego. Her publications have demonstrated all sorts of ways in which our grammars rearrange our ways of perceiving and understanding the world.
“Even flukes of grammar can profoundly affect how we see the world,” Boroditsky says. For example, the word for death in German is masculine, whereas in Russian, it’s feminine. “German painters are more likely to paint death as a man, whereas Russian painters are more likely to paint death as a woman,” she says.
Boroditsky also points to her work with the nomadic Kuuk Thaayorre people in Australia, who have a unique way of referring to direction not in egocentric coordinates (“my left leg“) but according to direction in space (“my north-western leg”). To be able to refer to objects in this way, they naturally have to pay constant attention to their orientation in space. This mandates an entirely different overall experience of the environment around them.
This extends even to their experience of time. We Westerners tend to think of time as going from left to right. When asked to arrange pictures of people of different ages, we will tend to do so with the youngest beginning on the left through to the oldest on the right. But for the Kuuk Thaayorre people, the natural arrangement of time is from east to west, following the sun. In other words, depending on whether you’re pointing north or south, the arrangement of young to old will go right to left instead of left to right.
People who speak several languages frequently self-report that they feel like different people when speaking in different languages. When I quizzed my own team, which contains 29 different nationalities, I got some very amusing anecdotal examples. Our Japanese specialist becomes a much more direct person while speaking English; our resident Israeli becomes much less so; and the French enjoy eating less when speaking in English.
Nairan Ramírez-Esparza, an assistant professor of social psychology at the University of Connecticut, has conducted experiments that demonstrate this phenomenon. In one study, she had Mexican-American subjects talk about themselves in relation to their families, relationships and hobbies, in both Spanish and English. “In English, they spoke of their achievements, college, and daily activities. In Spanish, the subjects talked about themselves in relation to their families, relationships, and hobbies,” she says. Ramírez-Esparza explains this is because language primes behavior so that different emphases are focused on different values: In the case of English, toward individualism; in that of Spanish, toward community.
The impact that shifting languages can have on us reveals how central it is to our identities and social connections. In a series of intriguing studies, Boaz Keysar and his colleagues at the University of Chicago have shown that when speaking a second language, people tend to behave more rationally. In our native languages, we’re somewhat stuck in our habits, and likely to be susceptible to classic cognitive biases. But the more thoughtful effort that is required to speak a second language helps elevate us into more rational territory.
As the Roman stoic Seneca said, “One of the most beautiful qualities of true friendship is to be understood.”
A side effect of learning a second language is that we become better at empathetically assuming others’ perspectives. A variety of studies, especially in children, have shown that speaking another language can improve our ability to imagine the perspective of another.
Why should this be? One theory relates this phenomenon to the fact that the multilingual brain absorbs languages in an overlapping way. Many tens of millions of the same neurons involved in your speaking French, for instance, will also contribute to your speaking Chinese. The intertwinement of these networks confuses your brain: Its Chinese-speaking parts will tend to activate the French-speaking ones and vice-versa, and thus a hybrid of Chench or Frinese threatens to babble forth.
To keep such creativity at an acceptable level, scientists opine that the brain’s systems of cognitive control are forced to work harder—and in the course of that workout, they grow stronger. That serves to enhance people’s ability to inhabit their personal perspective, and as a result, they’re better at assuming other people’s perspectives.
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In these various ways, someone who has learned a foreign language or three can benefit from increased empathy, selflessness, flexibility of thinking, and self-awareness. It is surely no coincidence that these qualities are commonly cited as absent in the characters of US president Donald Trump and former leader of the UK Independent Party Nigel Farage, the two monoglots who’ve done perhaps the most to narrow political discourse in America and Britain in recent years.
A few language lessons won’t reverse Brexit or get Trump impeached. But they may be able to sprinkle a little empathy into the void. And in the meantime, the rest of us can get on with opening our minds by learning a language as soon as possible—lest we come to resemble those whom we abhor.