How Learning a Language Changes Your Behavior

Thoughts are powerful and, it turns out, so is the language you speak them in.

Learning a language goes beyond vocabulary, grammar and syntax. It also requires adopting a new way of thinking, and as your thought patterns change, so do your behaviors.  Through this process of learning and practicing a language, you become more sensitive to culture, time and even your personality. You discover that this language you once thought to be foreign is now shaping your entire life.

In addition to improving your brain functions and boosting your intelligence, language changes your behavior in more ways than you think. Here’s how:

1. Affects Perception of Time

Different languages reveal cultural nuances in the use of their tenses. For example, tensed varieties, like Greek and English, distinguish between the past, present and future, whereas languages like Chinese and Thai don’t differentiate. These tenseless languages use the same phrasing to describe all times.

Some languages, like Greek, have multiple tenses to explain both an event’s position in time and the nature of an action regarding its beginning, middle, end or repetition. This way, they can more precisely describe something in not so many words.

2. Influences Specific Behaviors

Furthermore, these different tenses can influence specific behaviors like smoking habits, money management and health maintenance. Where tenseless languages are the mother tongue, personal savings tend to be higher, people are less likely smoke and the population is less inclined towards obesity. The lack of linguistic differentiation between the past, present and future tends to build a longer-term mindset because future eventualities seem more immediate in conversation.

As your behavior changes, so do your skills. In fact, learning a new language could even impact your professional behavior and career aptitude — which could, in turn, change your life.

3. Shapes Cultural Views

Language cannot be separated from cultural views. It acts as a filter, shedding new light on the way you view the world. For example, Chinese children learn to count earlier than English-speaking kids because their language labels numbers more transparently — 11 is literally translated as 10-one. Australian dialects orient themselves better in space compared to English-speakers. Instead of saying, “that cat over there,” they say “that cat to the north” because they rely on directions to correctly assemble sentences.

Thus, Chinese children understand numbers at a younger age and Australians pay more attention to the cardinal directions. Different languages focus attention on various aspects of the environment, whether they be physical or cultural. In this way, you see what is valued by the speaker. Language doesn’t limit your ability to see the world but allows you to focus your perception on different aspects of it.

4. Changes Personality

Likewise, cultural views also affect the language you speak, thereby affecting your personality. The feel of your new tongue can change how you feel about yourself. For instance, some people feel sophisticated or intelligent when speaking French, while those who speak German may feel strong or straightforward. You may take on a more confident persona when speaking German and a more elegant one when speaking French.

These language-associated feelings can be influenced by a person’s experience with a certain culture, even from a very young age. For instance, someone who fled Nazi Germany to come to America might refrain from speaking German because they associate it with captivity. Instead, they might prefer speaking English and associate that language with freedom and safety.

New Language, New You

Regularly speaking in a second language allows you to view the world in a completely different way and can even influence your personality and the way you see yourself. Bilinguals, in particular, change attitudes and personalities depending on the environment, culture and language setting. The same is true for those who learn a new language but on a more gradual scale.

As you learn and practice, language influences the way you behave and respond to situations. Over time, it begins to shape the way you view the world. How will learning a second language change you? There’s only one way to find out. Start making time for your new language every day — and make room for a new version of yourself.


Alyssa Abel is an education blogger with a special interest in study abroad, language learning and cultural education. Read more of her work for students and educators on her blog, Syllabusy, connect with her on Facebook or follow her on Twitter.