Thinking in Two Languages: Why You Should Learn a New Language this Summer

By Catherine Salgado on June 24, 2019

Thinking in two languages has had dramatic impacts on my life, something I never could have foreseen. I had studied both Italian and Latin before I went to college, and enjoyed both, but I never intended to minor in languages, let alone major in them. After taking an upper-level Latin course on Vergil’s Georgics my first semester at Christendom College, however, I fell in love with languages. Two years into college, I am majoring in Classical Languages (Greek, Latin, and Hebrew) and hoping to go on to graduate school to study Linguistics more in-depth—hopefully Philology.

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Why am I telling you this? You may think that knowing so-called “dead languages” like Latin and Ancient Greek could hardly translate into “practical” life skills and that in any case, they have nothing to do with your life. What I want to say, though, applies to language in general and college students especially: learn a new language this summer, because then you can think in two languages. As Karl Albrecht once said, “Change your language and you change your thoughts.”

This may seem either obvious or at least hardly exciting. Of course, I’ll be able to think in two languages if I become bilingual. So what? As it turns out, thinking in two languages may have dramatic effects on your brain, and enable it to work in more ways than ever before. Employers have said in numerous studies that they value good communication skills highly, for example. As Chancellor Edward Lee Gorsuch said, “Learning a foreign language not only reveals how other societies think and feel, what they have experienced and value, and how they express themselves, it also provides a cultural mirror in which we can more clearly see our own society.”

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Language is the primary and most important way in which we communicate—anyone who has experienced temporary deafness or dumbness can attest to how frustrating it is to be unable to talk to other people. Communication is essential to almost any significant human activity. We think in words, we speak in words, we write in words. One of the most nerve-racking things about going to another country or meeting someone who doesn’t speak your language is the question, “How will I communicate?”

The words we use absolutely shape how we think and how we want others to think. This in turn, as Gorsuch noted, shapes our cultural identity. There are numerous instances of those in power trying to use a new language or new terminology to shape the thoughts of the people under them. The English tried to destroy the Irish language when they took over Ireland, many words (like “homosexual” and “stewardess”) have been replaced in American English, and many European and Asian countries put bilingualism as a top priority in schools. The people behind every major movement, for better or for worse, use words in certain ways and try to get other people to use the words that way too. If you can speak a language, you can understand how someone from a completely different culture thinks, and that gives you the key to his culture.

So, learn a new language this summer, a language with a totally different grammatical structure. So many languages, like Spanish, Latin, and Italian, are structured more or less according to word ending instead of word order (like English). It’s fascinating to start writing or reading or thinking sentences with the direct object at the beginning and the verb at the end. Sometimes, when I struggle to express myself adequately in English, I find myself wishing I could just write papers in Latin—the way I think has become heavily affected by Latin and its word ending v. word order grammar!

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Another advantage of studying languages like Mandarin or Arabic is that they come from cultures that have always been radically different from any European one. You can understand people so much better if you know their language. I remember the first time I discovered that Semitic languages (Hebrew, Arabic, etc.) and some European languages (e.g. Ancient Greek) have different verbs for the different sexes. I also remember finding out that Spanish speakers say that you have a certain number of years, rather than that you are a certain number of years. As for Latin, there is no way to express the concept of “failure” in their language. Latin simply has no word for “fail.” These facts tell you something fascinating about these cultures, something to be further explored and understood. Why are languages like this? How would such grammars affect the way you think?

Suddenly, studying a language becomes so much more than simply substituting one word for another. You can get inside a person’s head by studying his language, and you can see common human experiences and problems in a whole new light. Also, starting to think, read, or write common, everyday phrases or conversations in another language may surprise you with how much versatility it gives you, and how well that can translate to other areas of your life. People who speak more than one language consistently do better on tests, for instance. I can tell you from experience that having a conversation in Spanish is totally different than having one in English, and Harry Potter in Latin is not the same story, no matter how much of the events and characters are the same!

This is a huge subject which could fill whole books rather than just an article. Hopefully, however, you may feel more inspired to start working on—or continue your studies in—a foreign language. Thinking in two languages can open up a whole new world for you!

Hi! I am a rising junior at Christendom College double majoring in Classics (Classical Languages) and Theology. I am the eldest child in a family of five kids and was homeschooled all the way up until I went to college. My hobbies include writing novels and articles, reading, knitting, drawing, playing piano and ukulele, and making jewelry. Post graduation, I hope to become a full-time journalist.

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