Another beautiful Monday morning in Sydney and, as usual, I went about clearing my inbox/es and scanning through the many posts, comments, suggestions, tips, jokes, advices, video links, friendship requests etc, in my various social media “outlets”. Today, Cecilia Acosta’s recommendation in LinkedIn, “More evidence bilingualism aids thinking sills” made me think about what it meant being bilingual and multilingual before – and by before I mean 30 years back, as far as my memory is able to recall – and now, – in this fast, change driven world of today.
Study on the benefits of bilingualism
The article cited by Acosta presented the results by a group of researchers from Northwestern University, who recorded the brainstem responses in 23 English and Spanish speaking teens and 25 English only speaking teens as they heard speech sounds in two conditions.
In a nutshell, the study confirmed that bilingual teens had greater attention, and higher capacity for inhibition and encoding of sound . Viorica Marian, the study co-author and bilingualism expert explains that bilingual subjects showed an enhanced ability to pick out relevant speech sounds and ignore others.
That is really good news and confirmation, once more, that intercultural and interlinguistic exchanges have nothing but positive consequences; but it seems to me that being bilingual (or multilingual) is more the norm than the exception, being a necessity, or even a matter of pride for many people in the world today. In fact, it would be difficult to find a country which is completely monolingual.
The norm, not the exception
Although repressed for many years, the various languages spoken in my native Spain, are an example of linguistic coexistence; now, Basque, Catalan and Galician have official status in Spain. I grew up speaking Castilian to my grandfather who was from the Canarian islands, my aunties from Andalucia and Catalán to my parents and brother and all my mum’s aunties, who could not speak Castilian. And so did most of my friends. And probably so did most of Hakka kids in China who speak Mandarin and their dialect, or Malaysians of Hokkien descent who speak Hokkien, Mandarin , Cantonese and Bahasa Malaysia, or the speakers of some of the 68 Amerindian languages recognised in Mexico.
It seems to me that bilingualism, and even multilingualism, it has always been quite common and it’s now a phenomenon further increased by the heightened level of interaction between peoples and cultures. For instance, the increased influx of migrants and refugees from all over the world, has made Europe an increasingly multilingual continent. In London today there are more than 300 languages spoken as a home language, while many other European cities easily have 100-200 languages spoken as mother tongues by their school populations. Only 3,5% of the world’s total number of languages are indigenous to Europe.
There seems to be quite a lot of hype about he advantages of being bi/tri/multi/poly- lingual, and rightly so, but, I don’t think we should forget that a great part of the world’s population has always juggled more than two languages. That is why I tend to question some of the comments that present this trend as a sociolinguistic development of the 21st century as a result of the increased contact of cultures brought about by technology, transport and international communication.
Having said that, I don’t dispute the advantages of being a polyglot, in fact, quite the opposite. I would always encourage everyone to try to master a foreign language and learn all about other cultures, but I am just cautious about treating a fairly common sociological characteristic displayed by many groups throughout history as a twenty first century fab. And yet, I am all for making full use of twenty first century technology to promote intercultural awareness, interlinguistic dialogue and developing multilingually gifted young generations.
Be a polyglot – This is why
The following are some of the said advantages of multilingual persons (this is an extremely superficial overview of some of the views I have found on Internet):
1. They show higher than average performance in handling complex and demanding problem-solving tasks.
2. They are more efficient communicators in their first language.
3. They are consistently better able to deal with distractions, which may help offset age-related declines in mental dexterity.
4. They can develop not only better verbal, but also spatial abilities.
5. They are able to categorise meanings in different ways.
6. They are able to learn further languages a lot quicker than their monolingual peers.
7. Have a better ear for listening and sharper memories.
8. They have increased professional advantages and better career prospects.
9. They are better at understanding and appreciating people of other countries.