How our brains deal with multilingualism

How our brains deal with multilingualism
Photo by Karolina Grabowska on

If you speak more than one language, you probably already know that juggling a whole different set of vocabulary, grammar and social cues isn’t the easiest thing in the world. Slip-ups happen all the time for multilingual people, it turns out, since it takes different parts of the brain to work out different parts of the language.

According to Mathieu Declerck, a senior research fellow in Brussels at the Vrije Universiteit, when you’re dealing in one language, the other ones aren’t completely shut off. “For example, when you want to say ‘dog’ as a French-English bilingual, not just ‘dog’ is activated but also its translation equivalent, so ‘chien’ is also activated,” he said.

This means that bilingual and multilingual people have to develop a sort of control system in their brains to be able to speak in only one language. Most of the time, that control system works, meaning people get the language right. But when they’re not thinking about it – or when they get caught off guard – that control system can fail, and a different language can pop out.

That system can also get messed up when you have to switch back and forth between languages very rapidly. One study showed that Spanish-English speakers occasionally accidentally read English words written out on a paper in Spanish. For example, they would occasionally see the English word “but,” but say the Spanish word “pero.” This almost exclusively happened when reading a text using both languages, necessitating quick switches between the two. Interestingly, these participants were looking at the right word, but their brains could translate it faster than they could handle switching languages.

All in all, multilinguals have it hard. If you are one, you know the struggle – if not, give us a break!