There continues to be research linking being bilingual – ability to speak, at least, two languages, with being more intelligent. I can’t share the scientific info with you but, in plain words, the more languages you learn, the smarter you’re going to be. If you already know two or more languages, you’re smarter than those who don’t. Okay, that maybe oversimplifying or falsely assuming things, but I think we can all agree, knowing multiple languages makes you smart. At least, when it comes to communicating in those languages.
I was raised tri-lingual. I grew up knowing English, Bengali and Hindi, and can comprehend a few other languages close to these in some way or another. Learning new vocabulary, in any language, is a passion of mine. I feel language is a gateway to a whole new culture, and your key to understanding it. A language is not only a medium of communication, but also the history and psychology of the people who speak it. Max Mueller said that German is the best language for doing Philosophy. Bengali is a highly poetic language, capable of expressing complex emotions accurately. Napoleon said, obviously in a derogatory sense, that England is a nation of shopkeepers. There is some truth to it, in the sense that English is a very pragmatic and economic language. No language is better at getting to the truth of the matter than English. French, as has been long believed, is the language of love. It certainly makes even the most mundane ideas sound sexy.
Of course, most of the above are extremely biased assumptions, however popular. You can do love, poetry, business and philosophy in any language. These assumptions are often made by multi-linguists, who think differently in different languages, as you have to. There are multi-linguists who don’t, especially if they learn their second or third language in later life and not as children. If you learn them as children, they’re naturalized to you. You get into a different mode when you shift to a different language. Some people change their voices, expressions, even pronounce sounds they can’t in other languages. Because children mainly learn through mimicry, they’re able to inhabit the character of that other language more authentically.
Not that there is an authentic way of doing language. At most, people of your own country or community would expect you to do their language in a certain way. Purist notions often come with it; a language is easily politicized. But, most of all, language is a skill. The more you know, the better you’ll comprehend the world around you. Much is lost in translation or ignorance otherwise. And a new language, even a new word, can be a delicious thing.
Being a practising multi-lingual, however, requires or acquires, a different sort of intelligence. This happens frequently in a country like India, where so many languages are spoken, that any of them rarely get used exclusively in any place. Apart from very formal occasions, most of us use a cocktail language of our own, and it requires a lot of muscular effort, brainwise. Comprehension is easy, spontaneous expression can get tricky. The right word can come to you in another language, but saying it in this one results in embarrassment. And these dialectic gymnastics go on regularly. You’d have to be smart, just to get on in life.
Just as a language is a living, breathing thing susceptible to growth, change and decay, so is your skill in it. I cannot say I am an expert in any of the three languages I’ve known all my life. My grammar can get shaky, the meaning of some word might elude me, reading a piece in it might take time, writing it might be a nightmare. Like any other skill, you only stay good if you use it well. And the one you use well is often the one which chose you. It might not be the language spoken by the majority of where you live. But, it will be the language you think your thoughts in. The one you express yourself in, even if that expression can’t go further than yourself. This is why some people never forget their language, even after spending years in someplace else where they don’t get to use it.
I’ve been watching the food and travel videos of popular blogger Mark Wiens from migrationology.com, where I’ve discovered something else that’s interesting. He’s an American with a Chinese mother from America, but he grew up in Kenya, France, Congo and the US (and perhaps other places!) and now, travels for a living. His wife is from Thailand, and he seems to converse with her in the Thai language. He adjusts his accent, almost mimicking the local accent, depending on where he is travelling, especially while pronouncing names of foods and places. The interesting part is, sometimes he seems to lose his regular American accent, to speak English with the accent of the place he’s in. Acclimatising your natural accent according to your context is not something I’ve come across frequently. Is it also a sign of intelligence, where you’re blending into the local at the level of suppressing what’s part of your identity?
A language is, at best, a key to a culture, and I’m glad to possess three. I’m always on the hunt for adding more keys to my chain, because it can help me unlock the world, leading to a more compassionate understanding of it. In my post Of Accents, I wrote about the problems being too focused on accents may cause. With language, however, no matter how badly you communicate in it, you’re always that much ahead in understanding yourself and others. And that, if you ask me, is kinda the point of life.
What languages do you know or speak? Are there any you would like to learn? Share any interesting, language-related stories you might have in the comments below!