Double Talk

There's no doubt that speakers of more than one language have nimble brains. Meet four bilinguals whose languages paved the way to multifaceted lives.

By Carlin Flora, published September 1, 2010 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Some are children of enterprising immigrants or embattled refugees. Others live along borders or are part of a minority that keeps its heritage while blending into the mainstream. Still others have spent years memorizing vocabulary lists and parsing sentences. All told, half of the world's population conducts life in multiple languages.

Bilingualism doesn't just apply to the small percentage of people who are perfectly fluent in two tongues. Bilinguals might speak beautifully in one language without being able to read or write it. And they may have acquired their second tongue as a child, a teen, or an adult.

People who are bilingual are often asked which language they think in, but when people are walking down the street, riding a bus, or jogging in the woods, their thoughts may not be in a particular language, points out Francois Grosjean, author of the research-based Bilingual Life and Reality. "Thought can be visual-spatial and nonlinguistic. It is only when planning to speak that individual languages actually intervene," Grosjean says.

While they do repress words in one tongue in order to speak another, bilinguals don't completely lose access to the first. For example, bilingual subjects reading sentences with cognates—examples would be "bleu" in French and "blue" in English—take less time to process them than other words, hinting at how they are always dipping into their total language knowledge. And they often intermingle their languages (Spanglish, Chinglish), not out of laziness or lack of ability, but in a natural quest for optimal self-expression and understanding.

Infants as young as 4 months who live in bilingual environments can distinguish between two languages, monitoring lip and facial movements. Babies also show a strong preference for the language their mother spoke during pregnancy. We're built to acquire language, of course, but we're also built to learn and accommodate more than one. Monolinguals are essentially underutilizing their abilities: Brain scans show that while monolinguals use established language centers such as Broca's area, bilinguals employ far more of the neural landscape when expressing themselves.

Contra conventional wisdom, bilingual children are not delayed in language acquisition.In fact, words learned before age 5 have an added emotional kick, regardless of how many languages are learned. Because the young child's brain is developing so quickly, across so many regions, the words learned during this critical period carry thick visual and emotional associations. For English speakers, "knife" is encoded not just as the utensil itself, but also as a cold, shiny, sharp, and dangerous object. Later-life linguistic associations aren't as rich: a knife is pretty much just a knife. That's why some people feel more emotional resonance in their native tongue.

Bilingual brains are fitter, too. A Canadian study showed that using two languages throughout life delays the onset of dementia symptoms by an average of four years. Bilingualism enhances attention and cognitive control in kids and adults. Also, bilinguals are better at learning additional languages, even if those languages bear little resemblance to the ones they already know.

Likely due to the fact that they've developed areas in their brains that lay relatively dormant in monolinguals, bilinguals seem to have abilities unrelated to language acquisition. They are better at divergent thinking tasks, for example, which require one to process unrelated concepts. Bilingual children are able to analyze language on a meta-linguistic level, detecting whether a speaker avoids redundancy and whether he or she follows conversational rules, such as not interrupting, more readily than do their monolingual peers. This ability probably derives from the fact that bilingual children intuitively understand that any given language is just one form of communication, a means to an end; they can therefore be more more "topdown"in evaluating how a conversation plays out.

Language acquisition is intellectually fascinating. And yet the circumstances under which most people acquire multiple languages are matters of visceral drama: Families uprooted by immigration and dreams pursued in a distant land. Four such journeys are recounted on these pages.

Flossie Wong-Staal

"Learning Mandarin from a Beijingese is like learning the Queen's English."

Flossie Wong-Staal

Profession: Biologist / Languages: Cantonese, English, Mandarin

Last summer, Flossie Wong-Staal and her husband toured the lake-filled Yellow Mountain area of China. "The local children saw my [American] husband and shouted, 'The hellos are coming!' 'Hellos' was the only part of that sentence they said in English. It's their generic term for foreigners. It was so cute."

Later during the trip, in Shanghai, Wong-Staal dined with her sister and friends. "Most of them did not speak English. I spoke Cantonese with friends from Hong Kong, Mandarin with friends from the mainland. Some Shanghainese, which I can understand but can't speak, was thrown into the mix, too. It was a lot of fun. It's so enjoyable to have the freedom and ability to switch from one language or dialect to another."

Wong-Staal travels to China at least once a year, often to speak at scientific conferences. A top molecular biologist, she was on the team that first cloned the HIV virus. Her work led to the development of the first treatments for AIDS patients. Currently she runs her own company, iTherX, in San Diego, and is testing a promising drug for hepatitis C.

Wong-Staal has continually used all three of her languages. She was born in Guangzhou and spoke Cantonese at home. Her father commuted to Hong Kong for business and when the flow of traffic was blocked by China in 1949, he stayed in the British-controlled city. Two years passed before Wong-Staal, her siblings, and her mother were permitted to join him.

She attended a high school in Hong Kong run by American nuns. Because the nuns found it difficult to pronounce Chinese, they asked her to pick a new name. "Since I did not want to be another Mary or Theresa, I asked my father to choose something unusual. He saw a list of names for typhoons that hit Southeast Asia, and picked Flossie."

Her English rapidly improved after she moved to the U.S. at age 18, to attend UCLA. Many of her classmates spoke Mandarin, China's dominant language, and one that has practically nothing in common with Cantonese. Nevertheless, Wong-Staal quickly mastered it. "I just learned it through conversations with people and also through watching movies," she says. "I love Chinese martial arts and romantic films." Later, she employed a babysitter who was from Beijing. "I think that helped my Mandarin accent, because learning from a Beijingese is like learning the Queen's English."

It was English that enabled her early career, and yet now she sees her other languages as global networking tools. "These days, to be successful in science, you have to be able to articulate your ideas and promote them, so that people are interested in collaboration and invite you to future meetings. That's how you build your reputation. The days of being a lone scientist working in your lab are gone."

Though she's always thinking and dreaming in all three tongues, as a busy working mother Wong-Staal wasn't able to teach her two daughters, now adults, her native language. But her 7-year-old granddaughter, who is just a quarter Chinese, is taking Mandarin lessons. "Her accent is very good and she's even learning to write out the letters. I'm very proud of that." Wong-Staal plans to take her granddaughter traveling across the Yellow Mountain region someday. Imagine the distinctly 21st-century moment of shock the villagers will feel when the blonde and blue-eyed "hello" opens her mouth and speaks perfect Mandarin.

Gary Shteyngart

"Nothing is dumber to Russians than being happy all the time."

Gary Shteyngart

Profession: Novelist / Languages: Russian, English

To be a master of tragicomedy, one has to understand suffering up close, and yet gain enough distance to see the folly of it all. Growing up as a child of immigrants who talk funny, eat strange foods, and simply don't seem to understand how the world works, is great training. Gary Shteyngart spent years as an outcast, but now, as a storyteller who channels characters from around the world, he seems able to fit in anywhere.

Shteyngart, this year named one of the "20 under 40" most promising fiction writers by The New Yorker magazine, moved to the U.S. with his parents when he was 7 years old. His books, The Russian Debutante's Handbook, Absurdistan, and the newly published Super Sad True Love Story—a fantastic and heartfelt tale of a Russian-American and a Korean-American set in a dystopian near future—are all written in English."I'm much more at home in English, grammatically, than I am in Russian," Shteyngart says. "But often Russian is very useful in terms of getting across concepts. So I'll come up with something in Russian and then translate it. It's like a second soundtrack in my mind."

Shteyngart's family didn't have a TV until he was 13, his parents spoke only Russian, and he read only Russian novels at home—hence his fluency in his native tongue, despite having immigrated at a young age. "Even when I speak English I find myself falling into Russian-isms because it was so ingrained in me as a child. Some people may fight that and want to conform more, but I don't."

As a teenager, Shteyngart did want to fit in, and so he whittled down his Russian accent when he was 15 by spending hours in front of the mirror practicing his pronunciation. It's an exercise that probably contributed to his ability to nail dialogues and dialects. Take the protagonist of Absurdistan, Misha Vainberg: He's a Russian national who speaks what Shteyngart calls a "global elite English that is very common these days among people at the height of third world societies," but because he went to college in the U.S., Vainberg can also speak a Bronx patois with his Latina girlfriend and email notes to his college buddies in hip-hop-ese.

"I really love dialogue, so whenever I'm writing something, I act it out and I try to hear how it sounds. In some ways I'm revisiting the initial bilingual juncture, of learning a second language from scratch," Shteyngart says. He's not methodically collecting accents and speech patterns as he's out meeting people; he just absorbs them. "It's the way my mind is formed."

Bilinguals sometimes express various sides of themselves when speaking different languages—personalities rooted in their childhood, say, or in a particular culture. When Shteyngart is running a bureaucratic errand, for instance, he's in Russian mode. "Russians are formal and serious, and if I'm checking into a hotel in Iowa, it takes effort to get the smile on, and also to get the language going behind that smile, too." And sometimes during his annual trips back to the homeland, his American tendency toward general friendliness makes his compatriots think he's an idiot. "Nothing is dumber to them than being happy all the time," he explains. "When Russians are among friends, they are jovial, but as within many societies with a history of terrible political troubles, there's a disconnect between public and private selves.

Kati Marton

Profession: Author and Journalist / Languages:: Hungarian, French, English

As a little girl in Budapest in the 1950s, Kati Marton saw that her multilingual parents led an infinitely richer life than grown-ups who spoke only Hungarian. "We had a constant stream of foreign visitors and diplomats," says Marton, a New York City-based author. "I hugely admired my parents' ability to navigate cultures."

Knowing English, in fact, saved her parents' lives. Once the Communists took over the country in 1949, the only work her "bourgeois" mother and father could get was with American news agencies. As a result, the family lived well, but paid dearly for it. Marton now knows that the family was scrutinized for years and spied on by many in their inner circle, including Marton's own nanny. Her father spent nearly two years in prison and her mother a year, both on charges of spying for the U.S., which they denied. And yet, it was their pro-U.S. stance and American connections that broke them out of jail and enabled the family to emigrate to the Washington, D.C., area when Marton was 8 years old.

Kati Marton

"I count, curse, pray and sing only in Hungarian."

Upon arrival in the U.S., Marton was already fluent in French, thanks to the informant nanny, who had taught it to her. "I have a three-legged linguistic personality," she says. "A man who spoke English, French, and Hungarian, that would have been the dream!" (Her husband, the eminent diplomat Richard Holbrooke, is certainly worldly enough.) Like many multilinguals, Marton and her sister speak in a special code, cherry-picking perfect phrases and descriptions. "Talking with my sister is the absolute luxury of knowing that whatever I'm trying to say, there's a word for it in one of those languages."

And the three tongues come with three temperaments. "When my husband first came to Budapest with me, he said, 'You are so entirely yourself here,'" she reports. "He always says, 'You've gotta go to Budapest with Kati if you want to see the real girl.'" While Hungarian-speaking Marton is open and spontaneous, the Francophone is a coquette who channels her college years in Paris, where she "learned to develop the feminine side." English-speaking Marton is a poised grown-up. "My Hungarian is not sophisticated, but it runs deep. The things I always do in Hungarian are count, curse, pray, and sing."

As a writer, Marton's advantage is that she avoids cliches simply because she doesn't have a large store of them the way a native speaker would. An earlier insecurity about crafting stories in a non-native language has abated. Her latest book, Enemies of the People: My Family's Journey to America, movingly depicts her investigation into Hungarian secret police files, a search that illuminated her early childhood and the persecution of her parents. "This book has a directness and simplicity that my first books didn't have, as I was trying to demonstrate to myself and to the world that I had a rich vocabulary in English."

Languages have opened unexpected doors for Marton. As a young TV reporter, she was able to get comments from Chinese musicians for a story about the Philadelphia Orchestra's trip to China: It turned out that many had studied in Budapest. And her first break at National Public Radio came when she was tapped to interview a French cultural minister. "Whatever ways I was handicapped by my early deprivation and trauma, I've been compensated for by my ability to connect with so many people."

Not having cultural or linguistic roots in a single place used to bother Marton. "It took me a long time to realize that one identity can embrace different people and different languages. I used to feel that I had to choose one identity over another. But now I know that it's all me; it's all one life."

Ramin Djawadi

"I'm unintentionally ridiculous when I use English slang"

Ramin Djawadi

Profession: Composer / Languages: German, English

When Ramin djawadi speaks with family and friends back in his native Duisburg, Germany, he notices that he's lost the local vernacular he used throughout his childhood. His German is now more formal; his words articulated. "I don't speak like someone from Duisburg anymore," he says. For people as determined to branch out as Djawadi was, it's not easy to hold onto roots.

Djawadi long had a fascination with the U.S. "It just came across to me as the land of freedom where dreams can come true," he says. "I also loved Westerns." Stateside obsession put into Djawadi a powerful drive to learn English. "I wanted to be ready."

Now a prominent film score composer, Djawadi is living out a Hollywood fantasy: He created soundtracks for Iron Man and Clash of The Titans, among other hit movies and television shows.

With a German mother and Iranian father, Djawadi is a second-generation immigrant. His father came to Germany to attend medical school in his early 20s.

"My dad prepared me well when I finally moved to Boston," (to attend Berklee College of Music), Djawadi says. "He told me not to live with Germans." His father, who didn't know a word of German when he arrived in his new homeland, followed the advice he would later give to his son by avoiding fellow Iranians. He also watched the same German movies over and over. "Every time he would figure out a little more about what they were saying."

The young Djawadi pestered his college buddies to help him master the language. "My English was sophisticated but I didn't know many of the simple words and phrases, like 'door hinge' or 'the drain is clogged.' They would point around the room, and ask, 'Do you know what that is?' Then I would try to remember the new words the next day."

Djawadi speaks only a pinch of Farsi. And yet, he's proud of his Middle Eastern heritage and fondly remembers the Iranian music that his father always played in the car. In fact, his unique cultural identity has given him a leg up in the film composition world, where the more fluent one is in different musical styles, the more jobs one gets. "In Germany, kindergartners are exposed to Bach and Beethoven. They're told what a canon is and why certain notes are repeated." It was upon that classical foundation that Djawadi learned about jazz and electronic music in Boston. Now that many action movies and documentaries take place in Iraq and Afghanistan, Djawadi is often called upon to mix lush orchestral landscapes with Middle-Eastern melodies and modern electronic beats.

His company, Silvertone, is housed in a complex of music studios owned by his mentor, veteran composer and fellow German Hans Zimmer. But Djawadi doesn't speak German with Zimmer, even when they're working closely together on scores. "All of the terminology for the business that we're in is in English," he points out.

Counterintuitive quirks like this (two native German speakers choosing to communicate in English) raise questions about what is lost and what is gained when someone speaks primarily in a non-native language. Djawadi still struggles when other people spell out a name for him in English, for example. "It's because "e" in German is "a," and then "i" is "e," so I get those mixed up. My wife makes fun of me and says that if she doesn't want me to understand something, she'll spell it out," he says. And, card-carrying bilingual though he is, Djawadi still doesn't attempt slang. "With my accent, it sounds unintentionally ridiculous when I use any kind of slang, even just 'dude.'"