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The power of language : how the codes we use to think, speak, and live transform our minds
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Chapter One Mind Boggling We live in a world of codes. Some are as strict as software, some as fluid as the mother tongue. Some expand like math beyond human experience. Some are loaded with bigotry. Some are like poetry. They are all languages. These are the codes of our minds. While you may not realize it, your mind already uses multiple codes-math, music, spoken languages, sign languages. The human brain is built to accommodate multiple codes of communication, and as we learn them, doors open to new experiences and knowledge. We come to see the world differently, and our brains are transformed as a result. Many people continue to miss out on the benefits of learning other languages, say Spanish, Mandarin, or Hindi, simply because the consequences of multilingualism are either misunderstood, minimized, or even politicized. But knowing multiple languages can lead to new ways of thinking that are otherwise unattainable. Just as learning math makes it possible to do things that are otherwise unimaginable-like building artificial intelligence, descending to the depths of the ocean, or ascending to other planets-and just as learning musical notation enables us to hear the sound of patterns composed thousands of miles away or centuries before, learning another language opens up another way of coding reality and new ways of thinking. If you have ever played Boggle, then there is a good chance you have been irritated at another player for turning the grid around while you were writing down words. You may have even been that person yourself, getting yelled at by the other players, all because at some point your brain made a discovery: that turning the grid changed your perspective and made you see the same letters in a different way, extract more words, and raise your score. Like a turn of the Boggle board, every new language that we know makes us extract and interpret information differently, altering how we think and feel, what we perceive and remember, the decisions we make, the ideas and insights we have, and the actions we take. Viewing the game board from a new orientation activates a distinct set of neurons in your brain, and different neural networks produce new answers to the question "What words do I see?" Similarly, in everyday life, the brain provides different answers depending on how the incoming input is organized by language. A single word can convey a complex concept-like gravity, or genome, or love-by encoding large chunks of information into small communicable units, optimizing storage and learning. The concept of language as a symbolic system is a foundational cornerstone in the science of language and the mind. But one symbolic system can only get you so far. The acquisition and use of multiple symbolic systems changes not only how our mind works but also the structure of the brain itself. The effect is more than additive, it is transformative. It may be a surprise to learn that the majority of the world's population is bilingual or multilingual. More than seven thousand languages are spoken in the world today. The most common languages spoken are English and Mandarin, with over a billion speakers each, and Hindi and Spanish, with over half a billion each, followed by French, Arabic, Bengali, Russian, and Portuguese. Speaking more than one language is the norm rather than the exception for the human species. Consider: Indonesian is the most spoken language in Indonesia, used by over 94 percent of the population, but it is the primary language of only 20 percent of the population. Javanese is the most common primary language there, but it is spoken by only 30 percent of the population. In many countries in Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America, children grow up with two or more languages from birth and then acquire additional languages in school or as adults. The populations of countries like Luxembourg, Norway, and Estonia are more than 90 percent bilingual or multilingual. Approximately two-thirds of the entire population of Europe speaks two languages (the European Commission estimates that a quarter speaks three or more languages), and more than half of the population of Canada is bilingual. The numbers are even higher for those with an education beyond high school-more than 80 percent of those with some tertiary education reported knowing two or more languages in the European Union. In many countries, multiple official languages are a matter of national policy. Canada, for example, has two official languages. Belgium has three. South Africa has nine. In India, more than twenty languages are recognized as official by the constitution, and multilingualism is the default. Globally, approximately 66 percent of children are being raised bilingual and, in many countries, a foreign language requirement is part of the school curriculum. Even in the United States, where monolingualism has traditionally been the norm, the segment of the U.S. population that knows more than one language is rapidly growing. Over one-fifth of people in the United States reports speaking a language other than English at home (22 percent in 2020)-these numbers have doubled in the past forty years and continue to go up, with the estimate closer to 50 percent in the bigger cities. And yet, we are just beginning to understand the multilingual mind. Why? Because science has been playing Boggle without turning the board. Most research has historically focused on monolingual populations, and continues to do so today, which means that our understanding of the brain and of human capacity, viewed only through the lens of single-language speakers, is not only limited and incomplete but in many cases incorrect. To focus only on monolinguals when studying the human mind is akin to how heart disease and diabetes were studied exclusively in white men under the assumption that the findings applied to everyone. We now know that heart disease manifests differently in women than in men, and that sugar is metabolized differently in the Indigenous populations of North and South America. People who speak more than one language or dialect have different linguistic, cognitive, and neural architectures than people who speak only one language. For too long, these differences have been seen as noise rather than as signal, as problematic rather than as the prototypical complex systems of human nature that they are. What are the dangers of leaving out linguistic diversity from research? One historical example is the Immigration Act of 1924, which was signed into law by President Calvin Coolidge and dictated the countries from which the United States would accept immigrants (North-Western European nations) and those from which it would restrict immigration (South-Eastern European, Asian, and African nations). This discriminatory policy, aimed at "improving" the genetic pool of the United States, was rationalized as being built on what we now know was faulty psychometric research on the intelligence of various ethnic and racial groups-"eugenic research" that did not take into account linguistic and cultural differences and was based on data collected from people who often did not speak the language they were tested in. Imagine being a farmer, coming fresh off the boat at Ellis Island and suddenly being given an "intelligence" test in a language you did not speak. Is it any wonder that speakers of English or of languages that were similar to English or were also part of the Germanic language group would perform better on these tests and get a leg up on speakers of languages that were less similar to English? Although the Immigration Act of 1924 was eventually repealed, echoes of biased immigration policies persist. A lack of understanding of people who speak multiple languages continues to result in an incomplete and inaccurate view of human capabilities, more limited personal opportunities, negative attitudes about immigrants and foreign languages, and biased educational and social policies. Including people who speak multiple languages in scientific studies can help accurately answer questions about the human condition. Until recently, we did not have the tools to study multilingual brains. Advances in science and technology put at our disposal new methods, like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which measures blood oxygenation response in the brain; electroencephalography (EEG), which maps electrical activity in the brain; eye tracking, which records pupil movement and dilation; machine learning; and massive international online datasets. Experiments in my lab use eye-tracking technology to reveal that, as we go about our everyday lives, what we look at, what we pay attention to, and what we remember are influenced by the languages we know and happen to be speaking at any given time. In these experiments, bilinguals sit at a desk and are asked to move various objects around while their eye movements are recorded. The ingenious part is that the names of some of the objects overlap across languages-like the English word marker and the Russian word marka (meaning "stamp"), or the English word glove and the Russian word glaz (meaning "eye"), or the English word shark and the Russian word sharik (meaning "balloon"). While doing my dissertation research, I used to scour shops for items that could serve as experimental stimuli; now these experiments can be run online with personal webcams. Analyses of eye movements reveal that when bilinguals hear words in one language (like marker or glove or shark in English), they make eye movements to objects whose names overlap in the other language (like marka/stamp, glaz/eye, and sharik/balloon in Russian). When compared to monolingual English speakers, both bilinguals and monolinguals look at objects with names overlapping in English (like marker and marbles, or spear and speaker), but only the Russian-English bilinguals look at objects whose names overlap across the two languages (like marker and marka/stamp, or spear and spichki/matches). English monolinguals do not look at the objects with overlapping Russian names any more than they look at other objects in the displays. This difference between bilinguals and monolinguals tested with exactly the same stimuli suggests that eye movements to a cross-linguistic competitor are due to the parallel activation of the other language in the bilingual mind. In another simple and ingenious task called the Stroop task, people are asked to name the color of the ink in which names of colors are printed, like the words BLACK or GREEN printed in either black or green ink. When asked to name the color of the ink and ignore the content of the word, people are usually faster to say that the color of the ink is black when it spells the word BLACK than when it spells the word GREEN. Multilinguals typically perform better on the Stroop task. Their ability to pay attention to the ink color (relevant information) and ignore the word content (irrelevant information) is a by-product of multilinguals' experience constantly paying attention to one language and controlling competition from other known languages. Over time, controlling competition across the two languages makes the brain better able to focus on relevant parameters and disregard irrelevant information, a hallmark of executive function. The impact of multilingualism is not limited to executive function, but extends to memory, emotion, perception, and just about any other aspect of the human experience. In one study, we found that when Mandarin-English bilinguals were asked to name a statue of someone standing with one arm raised while looking into the distance, they were more likely to say Statue of Liberty when speaking English and Chairman Mao when speaking Mandarin. When asked where and when Japan launched the initial attack during World War II, they were more likely to say Pearl Harbor, 1941, when speaking English, and Lugouqiao, 1937, when speaking Mandarin (the former referring to the attack on the United States and the latter referring to the attack on China four years earlier). When asked to name a woman who succeeded despite severe physical handicap, they were more likely to say Helen Keller when speaking English and Zhang Haidi when speaking Mandarin. These bilinguals knew both answers, but the speed and likelihood with which one of the two answers came to mind changed depending on the language spoken at any given time. Because language and culture are tightly intertwined, language functions as a vehicle for culture, and changing languages also switches cultural frameworks. Even personal memories about our lives-our childhoods, relationships, experiences-vary across languages in multilinguals. People are more likely to recall events that happened in a certain language when that same language is used at the time of recall. In another study, bilinguals were more likely to remember events from childhood (before immigration to the United States) when speaking their native language and more likely to remember events from later in life (after immigration to the United States) when speaking English. A student in one of my seminars sent me this message about deciding to experiment on herself: "I wanted to try this on myself, so when I FaceTimed my mom, I asked her to ask me a question about a memory in Chinese at the beginning of the call, then to ask me the same question again later in English at the end of the call. (It was clearly not the best objective science experiment, but it was still fun to try!) The question she asked was 'What is your earliest memory of being on a playground?' When she asked me that in Cantonese, the first thought that came to mind was playing on the playground with my parents in our old apartment, but when she asked me that in English, the first thought that came to mind was playing 'Princess' at my kindergarten's playground. Though it was strange at first to me how my initial response to the same question was of two different scenarios, the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. When I played on the playground with my parents as a kid I used Cantonese, while my kindergarten was taught in English." The finding that the accessibility of memories varies across languages-the Language-Dependent Memory phenomenon-has implications for interviewing bilingual witnesses in legal cases, accessing traumatic memories of events, and providing psychotherapy to bilingual clients. The memories that come to the forefront, in turn, shape how we think about ourselves and the frameworks we use. Languages can even affect how one experiences love and hate. "I love you" feels different in a native versus a non-native language. A native language packs more emotional punch. Which is also why some multilinguals prefer the use of a non-native language when they feel they need some emotional distance. Using another language does not create Star Trek Vulcans devoid of emotion, but it can provide more emotional detachment from the intense associations of the native language. As Nelson Mandela famously said, "If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart." Though it may seem extreme, a multilingual can quite literally feel differently about people, events, or things when using one language versus another. The likelihood of being rattled by curse words or taboo words changes across native and second languages. Speakers of multiple languages not only report feeling different, but their bodies have different physiological reactions (like galvanic skin responses that measure arousal, or event-related potentials and fMRI that measure brain activity) and their minds make different emotionally driven decisions across languages. The exact relationship between positive and negative emotions and language varies across people. For some, the second language carries more positive connotations because it is associated with freedom, opportunity, financial well-being, and escape from persecution, whereas the native language is associated with poverty, persecution, and hardship. For others, the opposite is true-the second language is associated with post-immigration challenges, discrimination, and lack of close relationships, whereas the native language is associated with family, friends, and parental love. And many are somewhere in between, having a mix of positive and negative experiences associated with each language. Excerpted from The Power of Language: How the Codes We Use to Think, Speak, and Live Transform Our Minds by Viorica Marian All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.
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Publishers Weekly Review
Marian, a professor of communication sciences and disorders at Northwestern University, makes a convincing case for multilingualism in her illuminating debut. A trilingual herself, Marian grew up puzzling over linguistic peculiarities: why, for example, was "bridge" gendered "she" in German, "it" in English, and "masculine if there's one, but feminine if there are " in her native Romanian? Language influences how humans perceive reality, she explains--Germans are more likely to describe those feminine-gendered bridges as "pretty" than speakers of other languages, cognitive research shows--and multilingualism is beneficial as it "opens up new ways of thinking." Multilingualism also confers various cognitive benefits: Marian's research tracking bilinguals' eye movements revealed they were better able to ignore irrelevant information than monolinguals, a marker of executive function, and studies have shown heightened mental flexibility among those who can speak multiple languages. Socially, multilingualism can promote cross-cultural cooperation, she writes, as appreciating "the utility and beauty of another language," can render one "less prone to... demonizing things or people who are different." The author also dismantles myths of a "critical period" after which it's impossible to become fluent in a second language, and explains languages can be learned at any age. Marian's extensive research and thoughtful analysis lend this entry weight, and the lay reader-friendly prose makes it all go down smoothly. Curious monolinguals will be inspired to expand their linguistic horizons. (Apr.)
Kirkus Review
An absorbing account of how language wires the brain. Marian, director of Northwestern's Bilingualism and Psycholinguistics Research Lab, is an expert on the relationship between language and the human brain. In this eye-opening account, she describes the results of decades of research in accessible, engaging prose. Some of the most intriguing conclusions are related to bilingualism and multilingualism, which have been shown to delay Alzheimer's, increase the brain's gray matter, and positively impact social cognition in children. Bilingual babies can better distinguish between musical notes, suggesting that the powerful effects of multilingualism on the brain are present even in nonverbal areas. Furthermore, languages bring cultural connotations, memories, and connections. "Learning another language doesn't just give you different words or more words," writes the author. "It rewires your brain and transforms it, creating a denser tapestry of connectivity." This radical transformation means that multilinguals communicate and even vote differently depending on which language they are using, allowing them to become a somewhat different version of themselves. Memories and emotions differ across linguistic and cultural experience and have clear manifestations in bilinguals. For example, people tend to be more emotional when speaking in their native language. On the individual level, being bilingual improves creativity, executive function, and aging. Socially, politically, and psychologically, understanding how languages affect the brain is just as essential, especially in the U.S., where more than 350 languages and dialects are spoken. "Engaging with a variety of languages," writes the author, "gives us crucial abilities that the human race will need to heal burgeoning social discord and to formulate solutions to looming global problems." Thoroughly researched and carried by Marian's own experiences as a multilingual who speaks fluent Romanian, Russian, and English, the narrative is both fascinating and fluid. Full of delightful insights, this book is thoroughly researched and compulsively readable. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
"Sparkles with insight."--Daniel Pink

A Behavioral Scientist Notable Book of 2023
A New Scientist Best Science Book
A Publishers Weekly Summer Read 2023 Recommendation
One of Next Big Idea Club's "7 Books that Reveal the Wonders of Writing and Language"
One of Inc.'s "13 Psychology Books to Understand Humans Way Better"

This revolutionary book goes beyond any recent book on language to dissect how language operates in our minds and how to harness its virtually limitless power.

As Dr. Marian explains, while you may well think you speak only one language, in fact your mind accommodates multiple codes of communication. Some people speak Spanish, some Mandarin. Some speak poetry, some are fluent in math. The human brain is built to use multiple languages, and using more languages opens doors to creativity, brain health, and cognitive control.

Every new language we speak shapes how we extract and interpret information. It alters what we remember, how we perceive ourselves and the world around us, how we feel, the insights we have, the decisions we make, and the actions we take. Language is an invaluable tool for organizing, processing, and structuring information, and thereby unleashing radical advancement.

Learning a new language has broad lifetime consequences, and Dr. Marian reviews research showing that it:

· Enhances executive function--our ability to focus on the things that matter and ignore the things that don't.
· Results in higher scores on creative-thinking tasks.
· Develops critical reasoning skills.
· Delays Alzheimer's and other types of dementia by four to six years.
· Improves decisions made under emotional duress.
· Changes what we see, pay attention to, and recall.

Table of Contents
Introduction-or Welcome!1
Part 1Self
1Mind Boggling11
2The Parallel-Processing Super-Organism23
3On Creativity, Perception, and Thought35
4The Word Made Flesh57
5Childhood, Aging, and In-Between71
6Another Language, Another Soul89
Part 2Society
7The Ultimate Influencer111
8Words of Change135
9Found in Translation153
10The Codes of Our Minds173
11The Future of Science and Technology193
In Conclusion-or Happy Trails!209
List of Illustrations259
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