Symbolic thinking

The brain works a little bit like a factory when it comes to language. In the mind of a person who is bilingual, words move along a conveyor belt through different regions in the brain, with sprinkles of cultural influences here and there. The end product is a fully translated word, sentence, or phrase unique to the speaker and their background.


The process

Unintelligible words float across a crowded street in Spain. City noises scatter the chance of understanding what anybody is saying. She has taken eight years of Spanish, is as prepared as possible, and yet she has never had to apply her language skills in this busy setting. No more bookwork, no more worksheets and no more classroom practice.

Upon her graduation, Spanish teacher Eileen Zack travelled to Spain for an entire summer. She and her roommate “lived with a family where [they] spoke only Spanish, and went to classes where [they] spoke only Spanish. Of course, everyone around us spoke only Spanish.”

“When I got there I felt like I had landed on another planet,” she said. “I couldn’t understand a word anyone was saying. After a couple of weeks, my ears adjusted.”

To kill the chances of any English-speaking interfering with the immersion experience, Zack and her roommate made a pact to speak only Spanish to each other for the duration of their stay.

“I really think that [immersion] is a necessity,” she said. “It’s not until you go somewhere where you are forced to speak the language for 24 hours a day, nobody to bail you out with English, that you can really learn the language.”

The way Zack teaches reflects her experience with immersion.

“It has always been my philosophy to teach students and to interact with my coworkers completely in Spanish,” she said. “I seek opportunities for myself and my students to use their Spanish everyday. As we know, ‘se aprende con la practica,’ you learn with practice. Practice, practice, practice.”

Screen shot 2013-02-06 at 5.11.19 PM (2)While it is not an overnight process, pursuing a second language not only looks good on college applications and job resumes, but creates a better connection with the world.

“Knowing another language … gives you the chance to interact with people in their own cultural context,” Zack said. “It gives you the opportunity to become a world citizen and understand where people are coming from.”


The psychology

No computer works in quite the same way as the human brain – especially when it comes to language. The psychology of bilingualism is rooted deeply both in the way the brain processes information and how individual cultures are reflected by their language.

Language can be learned in two main ways. The first is a fluid process, which occurs when language is learned at a young age.

“When we’re young we can just as easily learn two words for something,” said psychology teacher Doug Altizer. “Even if those words are in different languages, we can actually think in two languages simultaneously.”

The second way involves more steps. If an adult decides to learn a language after having only spoken English his or her whole life, the brain has to work much harder.

When someone tries to learn language later in life, it is “much more difficult to become fluent,” Altizer said. “First of all, you have to learn the language, then the second language needs to be translated back into the first language, adding a whole second and third step.”

Altizer’s take on immersion matches with that of Zack’s. Immersion in language – rather than doing work out of a book – forces the brain to make meaning from the language being learned secondarily.

“The thinking is much more symbolic upon immersion in another language,” Altizer said. “Instead of looking at a picture of a clock and going, ‘Thats a clock. Thats what it looks like in English, I know what clock means in English.’ [In immersion,] you just look at the clock and learn [the] meaning as you go.”

Bilingualism in essence spurs the brain to look at situations in more than one way. “The way we look at problems and approach [them] is rooted in the language that we have learned,” Altizer said. “The language we do learn affects our thought process.”

Knowing more than just English can be a way to break out of the same old ways of thinking. “If you learn one language, you are going to be engrained in that way of thinking,” Altizer said, “whereas with bilingualism, you’re going to approach the world with two different viewpoints.”

“Language acquisition occurs within a context, within a culture, and that language reflects the culture,” Altizer said. “It’s like a mirror relationship.”

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The culture

Senior Chiara Andreotti still vividly remembers her first day after the long plane ride across the Atlantic ocean. “I think I had the worst day of my life when I first moved here,” she said. “We had to stay in a really crappy hotel, and I just had a nervous breakdown. I didn’t know anyone here so that was pretty terrifying.”

Luckily, Andreotti had her family to help her adjust to America.

“[Family] was really important because I didn’t have any friends. I was just thrown in the wild. I just had to adapt.”

She had to get used to the English language in its full glory very quickly. “I didn’t have any choice,” she said. “I just learned it.”

Part of this adaptation was that Andreotti had to become comfortable with her knowledge of the language. “I didn’t speak a lot in the beginning,” she said. “I couldn’t make any mistake [or] have any hesitance
before I spoke.”

While Andreotti had a solid foundation of English – which she has been building since kindergarten – her experience with the language in the states was much different.

“I had learned the grammar in France because they’re really focused on it,” she said, “but then I learned how you speak [here]. I also listened to people a lot and I modeled how they spoke.”

Even the auditory components of English in America were different than the classroom setting in France. “[English] doesn’t sound like how I learned in France,” she said. “People here give little respect to grammar and rules.”

For Andreotti, learning the accent was the hardest part.

“You guys speak really fast,” she said. “If I tried to speak like you, I wouldn’t be as fast. It’s really hard to have the [American] accent right, and it’s kind of embarrassing to have a different accent.”

Her fluency is evident in the places that trigger each language, either French or English. “Well, I think in French when I’m at home, but then [at school], English. It’s weird when I think in English but I – I think really slow,” she said.

Most of the nerves are gone, but occasionally, insecurity resurfaces. “I get nervous about people judging me, that they don’t really know that I don’t speak English [as a first language]. They have no idea that I just came from France two years ago and that that’s normal for me.”