They start the day by reciting poetry in two languages, doing 14 situps, and drinking a spinach smoothie with a dash of soy sauce. Then jumping out of a window onto a rainbow, they slide straight into their cool bilingual world.
Not really… they do what the rest of us do: get up (or not), work, make friends, do laundry, study, eat, travel on busses, and dream. And probably a lot more of the same usual, boring, utterly non-bilingual-specific activities 😜
A ton of articles are circulating the internet devoted to the “funny things” bilinguals do; their frustrations, and the problems “only bilingual people can understand”. Rather than imitate those lists, I thought it would be interesting to take a more scientific approach by trying to discover the neurological and societal factors that cause the, sometimes quirky, behaviour in bi- and multilinguals.
Don’t worry though, even if we’ll be referring to science, there can’t be a blog post from me without a dose of humour (and gifs)! 😬
Here are nine typical characteristics of bilinguals:
1. Have bilingual (dis)advantage
This may be a bit of a downer for some of you. You might have heard that people speaking multiple languages are better at what’s called “executive control”; that is the ability to efficiently switch between tasks, as well as maintain focus. If you’re a bilingual university student, it’s definitely a confidence booster to know you may have a natural advantage like this over your monolingual peers! 💪
However, despite a wealth of research on the topic, a meta-analysis of academic papers conducted by Angela de Bruin revealed that the claims of bilingual advantage are often overstated. While some studies do find that speakers of one or more languages do have certain advantages, these are “neither global nor pervasive”
So, contrary to the promise of the title of this post... “effective task switching” is NOT in fact what bilinguals do.
2. Mix languages
Maybe you know the claim that bilinguals sometimes “accidentally speak in the wrong language”.
With more than one language in one’s head it may be hard to quickly decide which is appropriate for the moment. Bilinguals often mix languages in a process called code-switching or code-mixing — using two different languages in one conversation.
Bilinguals are often unaware of changing languages in the same conversation, and the spread and nature of these switches is investigated with curiosity by linguists 🤔 Sometimes changing the language comes with a change of topic. For instance, when you talk about family you would use a different language than when you talk about work.
Switching languages depends on the context and the language attitudes of the speakers.
Code-switching also depends who you’re talking to — but it’s not as simple as the obvious decision of not using Czech to speak to your German grandma. Speakers adjust their code-mixing, taking into consideration the perceived language attitude of their interlocutors. That is, if your mother is very particular about speaking grammatically correct language and never mixes Czech and German, even if she is bilingual, you would likely not mix those either. At the same time, if such mixing is pervasive among your school friends, you will unconsciously do the same as a way of signalling belonging to the group.
3. Think in mentalese
This actually applies to everyone, not just speakers of multiple languages. Many of us believe we think in a specific language, but it looks like the thinking process can be independent, and the language choice happens only when we decide to turn our thoughts into speech. Steven Pinker names this hypothetical language of thought mentalese.
We may all think in mentalese, but our inner speech happens in a specific language.
Thinking, however, is a process different from “inner speech”; it’s a more conscious practice of talking in our heads. You might have experienced it when waiting in anticipation for the teacher to reveal your grade. Your head might have been reverberating with the unspoken mantra “I wanna pass, just make me pass” — or maybe that was just me 😆
Jean-Marc Dewaele of University College London (UCL) investigated the choices that multilinguals make for inner speech. His study revealed that those choices could be governed by factors such as the context the speaker is in, the interlocutor, and the topic of the thoughts.
For instance, if your first language is Japanese, you study in Spanish, and shop in Italian, you are more likely to get internally angry in Japanese, think about your study topics in Spanish, and make a mental groceries’ list in Italian.
4. Use language creativistically
Languages and the metaphors they contain help us to see the world in different ways. Hence, speakers of multiple languages acquire more lenses through which to view the environment, and are consequently more creative.
This creativity doesn’t only apply to art but also to mathematical problem solving and the use of language itself. A deeper understanding of figurative language and metaphor can help make many bilinguals into poets and writers. British-Hungarian poet George Szirtes, writer Vladimir Nabokov, and author of the Notebook, Agota Kristof are just a few examples.
This is not the kind of language creativity I mean…
5. Good at joking?
Well… this is a controversial one. You might have tried to tell a joke translated from Russian, which was hilarious in the original version, to receive (at best) a complete lack of response, (or rolling eyes). But this is only one facet of joke telling among bilinguals.
According to a study by Vaid, López and Martinez, bilinguals can distinguish between jokes and non-jokes much better than monolinguals. One can presume that would make them more sensitive to humour and, with adequate practice, better at joke telling.
6. Diversify speaking situations
Phone in Mandarin, books in Greek, TV in Portuguese. Linguistic diversity is the reality of multilinguals.
When you want to ensure you regularly use all the languages you know, you will purposefully seek out opportunities to practise them in your daily life. This will be in situations where it doesn’t matter which language you use because you do want to keep in touch with all the ones you speak.
It can get pretty annoying though when using the phone; changing keyboards, typing diacritics or using wrong autocorrect… When next time you see your bilingual friend shaking their phone in frustration, it may be because it has again auto-corrected their Spanish gracias to “grassy ass”.
6. Better at making friends
Doesn’t it seem like bilingual people tend to be the centre of social attention? Well, if it does, there is science behind it.
Because of an increased sensitivity to the meaning of words and the ability to detect nuances (like recognising jokes), speakers of more than one language have better interpersonal and communication skills, or at least that’s what the research on bilingual children has revealed.
The good news is, you don’t have to be bilingual from birth to gain that skill, and it’s enough to be raised in a linguistically diverse environment. Who knows, perhaps even learning a language or two later in life could have a positive impact? It definitely doesn’t hurt to try!
7. Lost in thought?
Have you ever asked a friend a simple question about their day at work only to be met with a blank stare and a five-second hesitant “eeeeeh”? If the answer is yes, it’s not that they didn’t understand you!
Sometimes bilinguals can take a longer time to respond or be hesitant in their choice of vocabulary. The reason can be that they often use a different language to talk about a particular topic and so having to change to another one can cause confusion.
In other words, changing gear into a different language may result in longer pauses or hesitations.
A 2011 study on Croatian-English bilinguals found the need to change languages also results in more frequent usage of conversation fillers like “eeeh” or even nervous laughter and coughing.
So your bilingual friends don’t have their heads in the clouds! They’re just trying to find the right words to make themselves understood.
8. Look confused
A common misconception, still popular a decade ago, was that bilingualism causes slower development in children, therefore making them less clever than their peers. While it is true that being brought up in a bilingual home can delay the onset of speech, science has also clearly proved that early bilingualism leads to a better ability to focus and can therefore enhance academic performance.
With two or more languages available to chose from, bi- and multilinguals can take a longer time to find the right words. Research shows they experience that tip-of-the-tongue feeling more often than monolinguals.
And that’s not all. Have you noticed that look of squint-eyed confusion when a bilingual is watching a subtitled film?
It’s not that they can’t understand it. Our brains are wired to always look at the subtitles, even if we understand the spoken language. If, because of the bad translation, the spoken and written texts don’t match… you can imagine it can cause a bit of a brain overheat.
9. Hate to be treated like machines
Oh, so you speak Macedonian? Say something! Can you translate this for me? Will you teach me!
Bilinguals are people too. And they want to be treated as normal beings not quirks of nature. While it’s sometimes flattering to feel like an expert or be able to utilise one’s language skill to help a friend, being treated like a circus animal or a translation machine is just a bit diminishing.
When you meet an accountant, do you immediately ask them to perform a calculation as proof of their expertise?
Even if it’s your first time to meet a bilingual or multilingual person, be sensitive. If you are kind and receptive then, trust me, if they want to talk about their multilingual lives they will. And maybe they’ll even tell you a joke 😝