by Erica Ly

Envision travelling to a foreign country and admiring all the cultural wonders the place has to offer. The scintillating views and photography opportunities don’t contribute to the “language barrier” you always hear about… that is, until you actually need to communicate with the natives.

Trying to explain where to go to a taxi driver in Korea? Bargaining for a lower price in street stalls in Hong Kong? I can’t speak for everyone, or all the places you will visit across the world; however, if you travel to a place where English isn’t such a prominent first or second language to the entire population, you’re probably going to wish you knew how to fluently communicate in the speaker’s mother tongue.  

You will want to become what I dub “a multilingual chameleon”.

It’s no secret nor nouveau scientific discovery that being able to fluently speak, read, and write more than one language improves mental acuity in the short and especially long term.

In my high school Human Development course, we had an in-class experiment to see the effects of monolingualism vs. multilingualism on the results of a “Stroop Test”. Surprise, surprise: on average, students who spoke more than one language on a daily basis were able to finish the task quicker than those who only spoke one predominant language.


Although there are tons of extraneous variables you can point to, multilingualism trains your brain to “analyze” two “sets of data” at the same time on a constant basis. Speaking a different language with your parents then another with your friends trains you to flip a “switch” that turns off a language, and another on at unexpected intervals. It is also common for students in foreign language classes to look at words presented in English and translate them to another dialect. As “practice makes perfect” would have it, this ability also translates into your ability to perform better on the Stroop Test.

Experiments around the world have further proven that dementia in elders can be slowed to an extent where the mental effect seems to have been avoided entirely, thanks to multilingualism.

Even if the pure psychological and mental wonder of learning more than one language doesn’t faze you, and it is the fact that bilingualism can potentially lead to a higher paying job that catches your eye, you may question if it is too late to start now.

The simple answer is no. That being said, the time that it would take you to learn the language as a child vs. as the university student or adult you are now, is a different story.

cartoon demonstrating the difficulty an English speaker may have in interpreting the way some numbers are expressed in French

This summarizes the frustration numbers in French can induce in some non-native speakers.
(Image source)


Prevalent in the early 2000s (and persisting even now) was the hesitation of some parents to have their children grow up learning more than one language simultaneously. What if their baby grows up with a “mental mix-up”, where she becomes confused and speaks in a mixture of the two languages at all times, unable to separate elements of each (“Pomme. Was that English or French, and what does it mean?” “Apple, but I don’t know which language…”)?


The fact is that studies show this side-effect is rare in babies and young children. Language acquisition has a “critical period” which is most apparent between the ages of three and seven. During this time, a child can learn languages with the least amount of trouble and the most effectiveness, as well as developing a native accent. A typical kid in that age range would be able to pick up a language much easier than, say, those between the ages of 17 and 39, because of this neural programming optimal period.

Of course, motivation is also a key factor. That’s why if you are planning on learning a language in university, you certainly need to see it as more than fulfilling a breadth requirement on your transcript. The more you actually want to learn the language and have a goal to achieve, the easier and faster it will be for you to learn it. Your critical period may be over, but your motivation and perseverance to put in time can do just as much.


On the other hand, learning what you see as a totally uninteresting language won’t get you anywhere, as you have no drive (no motivation, no critical period or “window of opportunity” at this point) helping you. Hence, don’t learn a language you have no interest in just because you know many people around the world speak it, or you are aware you can get a job with it. Amongst other possible bumps in the road, your lack of enthusiasm will be the largest road-block on your learning curve.


I know that not everyone loves the process of learning a new language (as much as I do…). You may be more interested in the results: actually speaking and having other people understand you…sans all the hard work. Maybe you aren’t lazy, per say, but you just have so many languages you want to learn, and you think you won’t be able to learn them all in your lifetime. Well, that’s where technology comes in.

There are many companies currently developing offline translator products which aid in real time translation to and from different languages. While most of these innovations are currently in the incubator stage, the potential is endless! Imagine what language barriers we can break down in just the next few years!

Books, CDs, online videos – the resources are endless. And with so many language courses at U of T, seriously, what other sign are you waiting for to begin your journey?


Afterthought: Here are some tongue twisters and idioms in different languages: can you read any of them?