This is, of course, fiction. But there are very real theories – referenced in Arrival – about how learning a new language can re-wire your way of thinking and make you see things differently.
According to Medical Daily, learning a language can build new neural pathways inside the brain. A study carried out in Switzerland, meanwhile, measured the thickness of the cerebral cortex before and after three months of intensive foreign language training on the part of interpreters. The cortex contains a layer of neurons that deal with memory and thought, and thus the learning of language. The researchers discovered an increase in cortical thickness in some parts of the brain, as well as an increase in the volume of the hypothalamus – the section of the brain responsible for hormone production. It is believed that an increase in cortex thickness can improve memory and may even result in clearer thinking in old age.
But can learning a new language change the way we see the world? There is evidence to suggest that it can. Psycholinguists at the University of Lancaster have documented research into the linguistic differences that affect the way English and German speakers – and bilinguals – interpret events. They point out that English grammar provides a means of locating occurrences within a particular timeframe, while the German language makes less provision for this. The result is that someone speaking in German might specify a start, middle and end to an event, which is not necessary in English. One might simply say “a woman was walking along a busy road, when...”.
The researchers theorise that this may affect the way in which the event itself is interpreted. Their research suggests that German speakers focus more on possible outcomes, while English speakers focus more on actions. What's more, the researchers found that the perspectives of bilingual people involved in the same experiment appeared to change depending on the language in which they were being tested.
This could mean that our interpretation of what's around us depends on the linguistic tools we use to describe and record observation. This is certainly my experience when it comes to speaking Italian, where sentences often run backwards relative to English ones, and with much less punctuation. For me, this results in conscious thought about what the key object or message is, since this must often come at the end of the sentence.
Federico Prandi, writing on the language learning site Babbel, takes this a stage further, claiming, and even complaining, that being bilingual has caused him to develop two differing personalities.
Prandi explains that his Italian-speaking and English-speaking selves are two very different individuals. One example he gives to illustrate this involves the way he behaves at parties: sociable, funny and “close to having sober fun” at an English-speaking party, but “careful not to make eye contact with strangers” at an Italian-speaking gathering. He says his words sound “tremendously heavy and strangely out of place”, despite having grown up in Italy.
Prandi also shares details of an experiment carried out on Japanese women living in the US in the 1960s. Asked the same questions in both languages, most of the subjects responded with far more openness and confidence when speaking English, whilst their answers were more cautious and guarded when replying in Japanese.
I can fully understand this. When speaking French in France, or Italian in Italy, I feel a sense of freedom and expansiveness that I rarely experience in my native English, despite the greater restriction on choice of vocabulary that is inevitable when using a second language. I enjoy focusing on the choice of words and sentence construction as ends in themselves, rather than how my intended meaning is going to be perceived or accepted by others. I am less concerned with what others are thinking of me, less self-conscious and infinitely more at ease.