What goes on in the minds of multilinguals

Collage consisting of letters and words from many different languages.
Design: Fatima Jahan Ena

Before the era of Google Translate, multilingualism was an incredibly common and necessary skill. The cognitive benefits of being multilingual extend beyond language use and are evident in improved executive function, memory, and attentional control. In honour of International Mother Language Day, I dive into the fascinating world of language learning and the brain, exploring the science behind how our brains process language.

So how do we learn and remember all the nitty-gritty about a new language anyway? One way to think about this is to consider language as a complex network of connections in the brain. In the case of our first language (L1), we learn to make connections from an idea or an object to a word, its pronunciation, other words in the same category, words that sound similar, and words that look similar in writing. As humans we are really good at learning patterns. For example, when we see a dog on the street or we see word "dog" written down, we instantly know what it is in our L1.

When we learn our next language, we make the connections in terms of our L1. We conceptualise the idea to a word in our L1 and then translate it to the word in the second language (L2) instead of making a direct connection. This is called 'L1 transfer'. That is why the more we practice, the faster we can translate, the more fluent we become.

That brings us to the question, how are we able to use one or multiple languages at the same time? According to Dr. Neil Kirk, a researcher and psychology lecturer at Abertay University, a useful analogy for this is to consider that each language has its own cognitive "volume". The loudness of these volumes depends on when we learn a language, the frequency of usage, and our proficiency. By default, L1 is the loudest. This means it takes effort for the brain to tone it down and switch to L2 or another weaker or newer language. This is achieved by a phenomenon known as 'inhibition'. It is the ability to suppress the non-target language while selectively activating the target. And the little delays in doing this are known as "switch costs".

Multilingual children on the other hand, develop separate language systems in their brain with each having its own neural network. All of them are constantly active which allows them to switch between languages effortlessly. A very common complaint in our country is the usage of Banglish. This mixing of languages in conversations is called 'code-switching'. It just means we have increased volume for multiple languages at the same time! The brain behaves similarly when it comes to dialects too. Just observe your Sylheti and Chattgaiya friends and see how quickly they code-switch!

Children who are bilingual often have native-like mastery of their L2, whereas those who picked up a L2 in adulthood are burdened with an accent and grammatical errors. A common theory is that younger brains have greater plasticity, but new research shows that it might be more to do with the fact that with growing up comes social changes that ultimately diminish the opportunity or willingness to learn and lessens the exposure to the new language.

To sum up, multilingualism is a remarkable feat that demonstrates the incredible adaptability of the human brain. Learning a new language is a challenging yet rewarding experience that does not only have cognitive benefits but increases our ability to empathise with others and appreciate cultural diversity.


1.Duolingo Blog (November 3, 2022). How bilingualism affects your brain.

2.Darcy, Isabelle & Mora, Joan C. & Daidone, Danielle (2016). The Role of Inhibitory Control in Second Language Phonological Processing.

3.Joshua K. Hartshorne, Joshua B. Tenenbaum, Steven Pinker (2018). A critical period for second language acquisition: Evidence from 2/3 million English speakers.

Mashiyat Nayeem's new year's resolution is to pick up a new language. Indulge the language learning nerd in her at [email protected]