The Truth about Bilingualism

Ziad Fazah, a Lebanese living in Brazil, is currently the world’s greatest polyglot. He claims to know around 60 languages. A few years ago, the Brazilian police apprehended an undocumented immigrant who was speaking unintelligibly. They called in Fazah. He immediately recognized the man’s language as Hazaras, a dialect spoken in Afghanistan, and they resolved the situation.

Ziad Fazah

An even more legendary linguist, Cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti (1774-1849) was said to have learned a language overnight in order to hear the confessions of two condemned men. They were executed the following day. It’s an unlikely tale, although Mezzofanti was supposedly proficient in 72 languages.

Giuseppe Mezzofanti. Photo courtesy of University of Bologna

The likes of Mezzofanti and Fazah are obviously exceptional. But citizens of ‘developed’ countries such as the U.S., Japan and the UK may be surprised to know that monolinguals are in the minority. The linguist François Grosjean estimates that over 50% of the world’s population speaks at least two languages. In Nigeria, a country in which over 500 languages are spoken, people in certain professions regularly switch between six or seven languages in their daily work. The same applies in parts of India, which has 400 languages.


Besides being able to help out lost immigrants, what are the benefits of bilingualism? What myths persist about it? And are there any drawbacks to growing up with more than one language?


Attitudes to bilingualism fluctuate according to the changing circumstances of societies. When a country is in an economic crisis or at war, or when immigration is so high that natives think their lifestyle is threatened, bilingualism is “a bad thing”, divisive and harmful for community relations. Teddy Roosevelt, U.S. President from 1901 to 1909, said, “We have room for but one language here and that is English … [W]e intend to see … our people … as Americans, of American nationality, and not as dwellers in a polyglot boarding house.”


The English Only movement in the United States arose at a time of widespread Hispanic immigration, and its claims revolve around the issue of a common language and national unity. For its attempt to make English the nation’s official language, the movement has been heavily criticized, not least by linguist Geoffrey Pullum. He said “making English the official language of the United States of America is about as urgently called for as making hotdogs the official food at baseball games”.


Other critics of bilingualism have stated that a child’s brain isn’t equipped to master two languages. Scientific research tells a different story. The subject of numerous studies (see the work of Swain and Cummins), bilingualism has now been shown to have benefits in several domains: social, cultural, economic, academic and cognitive.


Ellen BialystokPerhaps the leading voice in favour of bilingualism is Dr. Ellen Bialystok, who has studied the subject for four decades. In a 2011 Guardian interview, she said she first understood the neurological benefits when she discovered that bilingual children could understand the structure of language as well as the meaning. Metalinguistic knowledge, as this is known, is “the key to using language for learning, for literacy, for thinking, for logic.”


To assess children’s metalinguistic development, she asked 5-9 year olds to say if certain sentences were grammatically correct or not. Bialystok used the example: “Apples grow on noses”, and found that the monolingual children couldn’t do the task. They’d stall and say “That’s silly! Apples don’t grow on noses!” The bilingual children agreed it was silly but said it was grammatically correct. They were right.


According to Bialystok, “speaking a couple of languages reconfigures the brain network in a way that positively affects certain things that brains do.” These “certain things” include problem-solving, doing tasks that require mental flexibility and creativity, and forming new concepts.


Despite all the research over the last fifty years, several myths surround bilingualism. One of these is that you have to learn both languages as a child in order to be truly bilingual. This is untrue. There are countless examples of adult language learners, who – given opportunity, strong motivation, a good ear, and a flair for it – have become outstanding users of foreign languages. Some of them have even published masterpieces in a second languageSamuel Beckett_ photo by Jane Bown. Samuel Beckett (pictured) wrote in French and English; Joseph Conrad, one of the great novelists, was born Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski. He was a Polish national who wrote in English, his third language, which he picked up in his twenties when he joined the English navy.


Another idea that persists is that bilinguals have to be equally proficient in both languages. It is more common that they have an imbalance of skills in their languages. Maybe a German medical student can read English perfectly because she has spent every day for a decade reading medical textbooks in English, but her speaking is only at Intermediate level. Maybe your Iranian taxi driver converses regularly in several languages but reads only one. Does this disqualify him from being in the bilingual club? Not according to linguist Grosjean, who classifies bilinguals as “those who use two or more languages (or dialects) in their everyday lives” (Grosjean, 2010).


Another myth is that bilingualism causes confusion when children are first acquiring language. Not so, according to several studies. Children differentiate the grammar of the two languages early and without conscious effort. We know this because of the errors they (don’t) make. For example, French-German bilingual children never use French word-order patterns by mistake when trying to speak German.


A final myth is that bilinguals have some kind of split personality which affects their sense of identity. Again, this is false. Instead, bilinguals gain insights into other ways of thinking and being. Although bilingualism does not equate with biculturalism, it does give you a feel for the multiplicity of things, and for how views of the world, as coded in language, vary. In English, a pig goes oink oink; in Japanese it goes boo-boo. In English, a dog goes woof woof; in Indonesia it goes gong gong. In Arabic, a future arrangement is usually book-ended with the word insha’allah (“if God wills it”).


Here’s cognitive psychologist Lera Boroditsky’s take on languages and thought patterns:


“Suppose I want to tell you that I saw Uncle Vanya on 42nd Street. In Mian, a language spoken in Papua New Guinea, the verb I used would reveal whether the event happened just now, yesterday or in the distant past, whereas in Indonesian, the verb wouldn’t even give away whether it had al­ready happened or was still coming up. In Russian, the verb would reveal my gender. In Mandarin, I would have to specify whether the titular uncle is maternal or paternal and whether he is related by blood or marriage, because there are different words for all these different types of uncles and then some (he happens to be a mother’s brother, as the Chinese translation clearly states). And in Pirahã, a language spoken in the Amazon, I couldn’t say “42nd,” because there are no words for exact numbers, just words for “few” and “many.” (Scientific American, February 2011)


As more and more adults pursue their dream of learning a foreign language, it may be of some comfort to know that even though progress is slow, and that the effort sometimes seems to outweigh the reward, the very act of struggling with the language is forging new connections in the brain. Besides the economic, cultural, and social benefits, it is a pathway towards greater mental health.


In the words of Ellen Bialystok: “learning other languages is important because it helps you understand other people, other cultures, other ways of thinking. Even if it didn’t change your brain, there are just so many benefits.”


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