Maria Polinsky — It’s very common to assume when people talk about language that everyone speaks a particular language and speaks it well. and this assumption comes from large countries with large dominant languages like English in the United States or Russian in Russia or Chinese or Mandarin in China.
So you have a large country, everyone’s supposed to learn the large language, and if they don’t, that’s their problem.
But if you think more deeply – and if you look at the history of human society – it’s in fact much more common for people to speak two or more languages.
If we look at that from that angle we realize that monolingualism, when someone speaks only one language and uses it most of the time, is more of an aberration rather than the norm.
In a way, the way sociology and linguistics have positioned themselves is looking at the aberration and treating it as the norm.
Obviously it’s important to think about what the consequences of bilingualism and lately there’s been a lot of new research which shows that bilingualism gives people significant cognitive advantages.
Let me give you two examples.
One has to do with a recent study which was done in Florida. Florida of course is where everybody goes when they turn 70. There are a lot of really old people in Florida and a lot of these people live in assisted living or nursing homes.
There was a study which they did in one of the nursing homes where they looked at about 800 subjects asking whether or not they grew up bilingual.
They discovered that the likelihood of having Alzheimer’s is five times less in people who grew up bilingual than in monolinguals.
That’s not a bad result – especially now that everyone is trying to live longer. We’ve figured out how to deal with heart disease and cancer so we might all end up in the nursing home and it’s not a bad thing not to have Alzheimer’s.
Another example comes from the other end of life and has to do with what’s called wonder babies.
This was a study which was done a few years ago, in Trieste – which is basically at the border of Slovenia and Italy. There are a lot of Italians and there and a lot of Slovenians and there of course a lot of mixed marriages.
What they did was they took three groups of babies.
All the babies were seven months old.
There were a bunch of Italian speaking babies, a bunch of Slovenian speaking babies and a bunch of Italian Slovenian babies from mixed families.
They showed those babies various puppets and then they switched the situation.
Typically when the seven months old baby is used to a particular setting and the situation switches it takes them a little while to regroup.
It turned out that seven month old Italian and seven month old Slovenian babies would get used to the puppet appearing on the right and when the puppet would appear on the left they would continue looking to the right as if nothing had changed.
Whereas the bilingual babies very quickly would turn their head and notice that the puppet has changed its position.
Again, an indication that all other factors being equal there was something that gave those babies more advantage.
These are just a couple of examples indicating that people do really improve when they speak more than one language – especially if that happens from birth or at least in the first five years of life.
It doesn’t mean that everyone has to drop everything and, if you are 51 years old, start learning the language that will help only marginally.
But if you were born in a situation where two or more languages are spoken, or if there are languages that you were exposed to as a child, that certainly gives you an advantage.
The question is why.
I’m going to give you one of the possible hypothesis which is very rapidly being explored in different fields these days.
That is that the control of languages has to do with what’s called executive control which is your portion of cognition that is responsible for attention and the distribution of tasks.
Let’s say you’re driving a car. You spend a lot of your energy and a lot of your memory resources looking on the road and ignoring what’s happening around.
The reason we don’t want to text when we’re driving is that this will distract us from keeping attention on the road.
A lot of energy spent on not paying attention to things which are not related to our driving.
Likewise when you have two languages or more representing in your brain, when you speak one, a lot of your energy and a lot of your memory resources go into suppressing the other language which is constantly present in your cognition.
Precisely because you are so experienced as a bilingual or multilingual speakers at suppressing the other languages in your representation, your executive control is better.
That way you exercise it way more than let’s say monolingual speaker does.
That leads to significant cognitive advantage.
Obviously, there are different shades of bilingualism, multilingualism. Once we discovered that there are cognitive advantages, there all kinds of questions that people ask.
One of the questions is whether or not it’s better to speak three languages than two.
At present, we don’t see any significant advantage in the presence of three languages as opposed to two.
Another question has to do with whether or not it’s better to introduce two languages sequentially or simultaneously.
People have been long worried about raising bilingual children because the worry is that bilingual children have smaller vocabularies in each language than monolingual children.
That’s kind of obvious because they’re 18 waking hours in the day and let’s say nine hours you hear language X and the other nine hours you hear language Y. Of course you’ll hear half of the information that you’d hear if you were just a monolingual speaker.
So up until age five we do find that bilingual children have smaller vocabulary in each of those languages. But eventually they catch up. So I don’t think that this would be a significant to worry, because this is not something that is going to last.
It’s important just keep doing that.
The argument for sequential bilingualism as opposed to simultaneous bilinguals are not terribly serious.
It looks like simultaneous bilinguals are better at certain tasks compared to sequential bilinguals but sequential bilinguals are better at other tasks. So the jury is still out as to which of those two is better.
What matters is the amount of exposure and not the order in which the languages were introduced.
Then finally people often worry about the role of literacy in bilingualism and multilingualism, saying, “what’s the point of learning a language which doesn’t have literacy?”
Let’s say you’re a speaker of Hmong, living in the United States. There is a large Hmong community in Minnesota. The Hmong’s look down upon their language because they don’t see what the use of it as there is no huge literature.
In English of course you’ve got everything from Shakespeare to Quentin Tarantino and you want to use all that.
But literacy is secondary to language and there are millions and millions of speakers who speak languages with no literacy, or with just the oral tradition, and they still have significant knowledge and significant cognitive advantages.
The presence or absence of literacy in a particular language is not a deciding factor in determining whether or not you want to raise your child bilingual or monolingual.
The disadvantages have to do first with the smaller vocabularies which show up in the beginning and, like I said, that usually catches up around age five.
The other disadvantage may have to do with the unequal distribution of languages.
One language is significantly weaker than the other.
You will see that there will be some kind of a transfer or interference from the stronger language to the weaker language.
These are probably the two main factors that people bring up.
One of the big issues in understanding bilingualism is what the input should be for bilingual or multilingual speakers.
For example, if a child grows up in the family where the mom speaks language X and the dad speaks language Y should they all be speaking X or should they all be speaking Y?
Or should it be one parent one language?
Until recently there had been one parent one language. So if your mom speaks Chinese and your dad speaks English, the mom should only speak English and the dad should only speak Chinese.
That’s a really difficult model to follow up on and it only happens in an ideal world.
Basically the notion that we’ve followed lately is that it’s just good to have as much exposure to a particular language as possible.
Then the question is of course whether or not there should be language X spoken in the family and language Y spoken in the society.
This is where again the importance is in the input.
The reason that we have a lot of minority languages, whose speakers start losing them, is that the societal pressures are much stronger than the pressures of the family.
If the family can just increase a lot of input by, let’s say, taking a person to the country where this language is spoken as the main language, this is the best.
There was a very nice study on Finnish spoken in the United States by Helena Halmari who noted that people who grew up in the United States speaking Finnish in the family but went to Finland every summer were much stronger in their Finnish than people who only learned Finnish in the family and were exposed to English.
Basically the crucial word is I-N-P-U-T, input, and that’s what matters.
I don’t need to convince myself that bilingual is important but I think we still have a lot of work to do in the general public convincing people that bilingualism is the way of life.
And there are a lot of issues here.
Some of them are economic issues, because bilingual programs, bilingual education, costs money and when the money is tight it’s always hard.
It’s also something that varies from country to country.
Living in a large country, I’m very used to the model that everyone has to speak English and this is the way of life and English is of course the language that everyone wants to learn.
If you go to smaller countries like Switzerland, or the Czech Republic, bilingualism is more of the norm.
My hope is that both linguistic research and educational policies will lead to the whole world becoming one big Switzerland rather than the whole world becoming one big United States or Russia.
Polinsky is currently a Professor of Linguistics at the University of Maryland.
FEATURED IMAGE CREDIT: Tico