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I remember the first time I read an entire book in one afternoon.

It was a few months after I’d moved to Romania. My experience of being totally immersed in Romanian culture and my daily exercises in learning Romanian grammar and vocabulary had begun to pay off. I was growing more conversational, though I was still a few months away from fluency.

One afternoon, I checked out Loving God by Chuck Colson from the library on campus, went back to my dorm room, and read 320 pages within the span of a few hours. Afterwards, when I put the book down, I remember thinking to myself, What just happened here? I just finished this book and I can recall what I read. I don’t ever remember being able to read this fast.

I tried it a few days later, with an English book that chronicled the Romanian Revolution. Same experience. Then again, with a novel. I probably read more that week than I had read in several months put together.

What had changed? I wasn’t sure, but I started to wonder if my ability to read quickly in English had something to do with my acquiring of another language.

The Bilingual Brain

I haven’t seen any data that links speed of reading in one’s native tongue with knowledge of another language. Last month, however, TIME featured an article by Jeffrey Kluger titled “The Power of the Bilingual Brain” that seeks to demonstrate how fluency in a second language produces a nimbler mind.

The article piqued my interest, particularly since my wife and I speak only in Romanian at home, and are raising our kids to be bilingual. Aside from the benefits of our kids being able to talk to their grandmother and aunts and uncles in Romanian, I’ve long suspected that there are other benefits to knowing more than one language. The article in TIME describes the most recent science and some surprising results:

Research is increasingly showing that the brains of people who know two or more languages are different from those who know just one – and those differences are all for the better. Multilingual people, studies show, are better at reasoning, at multitasking, at grasping and reconciling conflicting ideas. They work faster and expend less energy doing so, and as they age, they retain their cognitive faculties longer, delaying the onset of dementia and even full-blown Alzheimer’s disease.

Lest you think that it is simple a matter of bilingual people being smarter, the article goes on to point out that the issue is not related to intelligence, but the brain’s speed and agility:

A bilingual brain is not necessarily a smarter brain, but it is proving to be a more flexible, more resourceful one… It is the knock-on effects – not how the brain looks but how it functions – that argue most for learning additional languages, and it appears that the bilingual brain is simply more efficient.

The Bilingual Preacher

Charles Spurgeon, in Lectures to My Students, claimed that learning another language brought benefits in speaking:

The acquisition of another language affords a fine drilling for the practice of extempore speech. Brought into connection with the roots of words, and the rules of speech, and being compelled to note the differentia of the two languages, a man grows by degrees to be much at home with parts of speech, moods, tenses, and inflections; like a workman he becomes familiar with his tools, and handles them as everday companions.

Spurgeon then applies this insight to sermon preparation, not just sermon delivery:

Who does not see that the perpetual comparison of the terms and idioms of two languages must aid facility of expression? Who does not see, moreover, that by this exercise the mind becomes able to appreciate refinements and subtleties of meaning, and so acquires the power of distinguishing between things that differ – a power essential to an expositor of the Word of God, and an extempore declarer of His truth.

So, according to Spurgeon, the mastering of the biblical languages or the ability to speak another language fluently isn’t in translation work alone. Instead, the benefit is becoming more at ease with your own language the more you know how it works, and nothing shows you how your own language works better than learning another one.

Learn, gentlemen, to put together, and unscrew all the machinery of language, mark every cog, and wheel, and bolt, and rod, and you will feel the more free to drive the engine, even at an express speed should emergencies demand it.

Your Thoughts?

I’m sure there are readers of Kingdom People who know the biblical languages or who can speak Spanish, German, French, etc.

Has anyone else noticed a correlation between learning a new language and efficiency in reading or writing?

Those of you who have learned English as a second language, do you find your agility in your native tongue to improve as you get better at English?

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4 thoughts on “The Brainy Benefits of Being Bilingual”

  1. Brian Roden says:

    In Spanish (my second language) we have a saying: Él que habla dos idiomas vale por dos. The one who speaks two languages is worth two people.

    I can’t point to empirical evidence that I can learn and retain information now better than I could before I became fluent in Spanish, as I was always a top student. But it may be helping me retain that ability better now that I’m in my forties than I would be able to if I were not bilingual.

    I definitely believe that knowing Spanish helped me do well in my first two semesters of Greek this past fall and spring. And seeing differences in how well-known verses are translated in English and Spanish is prompting me to look at my Greek NT more to see how the Greek is translated into each language (for example, “ἐν” from “ἐν τῷ ἐνδυναμοῦντί” in Phil 4:13 is translated “through” in most English translations, taking it as a dative of means, but is translated as “en” (in) in most Spanish versions, meaning the Spanish translators interpreted it as a locative dative (I tend to like the locative better, as it puts the focus on the strength coming from our position of being “in Christ”).

    One downside to the Bounty (“quicker-picker-upper”) effect of being bilingual is I have to really watch myself or I’ll get frustrated with people who don’t catch on to things as quickly.

  2. Ivan Mesa says:

    I resonate with Brian. Spanish is my first language and it has come in handy with learning biblical languages. There are more linguistic categories that are formed in my thinking, many of which are intuitive.

    A similar article appeared in the NYTimes last year (the site is currently down). As far as making me “smarter,” I’m probably not the best judge of that.

    ‘The key difference between bilinguals and monolinguals may be more basic: a heightened ability to monitor the environment. “Bilinguals have to switch languages quite often — you may talk to your father in one language and to your mother in another language,” says Albert Costa, a researcher at the University of Pompeu Fabra in Spain. “It requires keeping track of changes around you in the same way that we monitor our surroundings when driving.” In a study comparing German-Italian bilinguals with Italian monolinguals on monitoring tasks, Mr. Costa and his colleagues found that the bilingual subjects not only performed better, but they also did so with less activity in parts of the brain involved in monitoring, indicating that they were more efficient at it.’

    And this article recently caught my attention on NPR: “In Miami, School Aims For ‘Biliterate’ Education”

  3. krystal says:

    I speak fluent English but I learned very little Italian in High School I tried but found it hard and even thought I didn’t have the best grade I wanted to continue. I speak Croatian when ever I get the chance, because I love my language, my culture(I was born in Canada)to a Croatian mother, Canadian father who’s parents were (German and Romanian). Im not sure their is a corrleation with being able to speak and read in two languages though. I can speed read in English but have to take time to read Croatian. I still struggle with words most of the time. I see a FB post in Croatian I only know about 1/5 words that are being said.

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Trevin Wax

​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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