3. The bilingual advantage
Welcome to the third appointment of Multilingualism matters! Please notice that I’m using the words ‘bilingualism’ and ‘multilingualism’ as interchangeable, as well as ‘bilingual’ and ‘multilingual’, since it is now clear that we are talking about people who speaks more that one language.
Thanks to modern techniques and new methods of investigations, research on bilingual development has intensified in the past 30 years, and has acknowledged that bilinguals exhibit some advantages in different domains of life. Many studies on Psycholinguistics, an interdisciplinary research field dealing with psychological and neurological aspects of language acquisition and language learning, determined that these advantages are particularly evident in tasks that involve cognitive flexibility and control of attention. In this article, we are going to discuss some bilingual advantages in different areas. These advantages can be summarized into four main domains: linguistic, cognitive, cultural and personal advantages. It is important to emphasize that it doesn’t matter which languages bilinguals speak! Whether it’s English, Spanish, Arabic, Korean, or one of the other six thousand languages of the world, these advantages are provided anyway!
Let’s start with linguistic advantages. Children who speak more than one language gain a spontaneous knowledge about language and its structure, that is, they notice how language works, because the two (or more) linguistic systems draw the child's attention to sounds and words, even if they are not aware of it. This implicit understanding of how language works, is one of the reasons why bilinguals are better at learning other languages. In other words, bilingualism involves an 'intuitive' understanding of the structure of language (in terms of sounds, words and phrases) and a greater metalinguistic ability, which is the ability to reflect on language. Let’s make an example. Italian-German bilingual children know that a cat can be labeled as ‘Katze’ or as ‘gatto’. Thus, they understand very early that the same object can have two labels, and therefore they implicitly know that the relation between objects and words is arbitrary. This helps when learning other languages.
When sometimes bilingual children are engaged in ‘language games’ like making ‘funny accents’ or strange translations between one language and another, they do nothing else but showing their ability to focus on the form of language, abstracting away from meaning. This ability to think about the language and talk about it, shows a higher awareness of language. It has been demonstrated that this knowledge is acquired at an earlier stage in bilinguals than in monolinguals, and that it not only facilitates the learning of other languages, but also the acquisition of some key components of reading skills.
As far as cognitive advantages are concerned, numerous studies conducted in the best centers for research on bilingualism, show that growing up with two or more languages leads to greater mental flexibility: early bilinguals, i.e. people who grow up with more than one language from birth, are better able to focus attention and ignore irrelevant information, and they also find it easier to switch from one task to another, and to adapt to new cognitive tasks. Let’s see why.
Psycholinguistic research has demonstrated that the two (or more) languages in bilinguals are always active, even when only one of these systems is being used. This means that when they speak a language, they need a mechanism to control the attention to this language, and to ignore the language not currently in use. In this sense, the required processes to control the two (or more) language systems, the so called ‘executive functions’, are crucial. Recent studies have shown that bilinguals develop greater executive functions compared to monolinguals. Moreover, other studies confirmed that bilingual children develop the ability to control attention and ignore misleading information, earlier than monolinguals. The source of the advantage is the experience of controlling attention to the relevant language system in the face of competition from the other language, which is simultaneously active but irrelevant to the current language task.
Another recent and promising field of investigations concerns the potential longer-term advantages, like the delay of cognitive age decline. Since the executive processes are the first abilities to decline with normal cognitive ageing, the lifelong experience in bilinguals might delay their decline. Several experiments show that from the age of 60 years old, reaction time in different tasks begins to slow down, but this process seems to be faster for monolinguals than it is for bilinguals. Although much more evidence is needed in order to confirm this hypothesis, we might say that, in general, the lifelong experience of bilingualism/multilingualism (using different languages on a regular basis and not occasionally) creates a context in which these mechanisms of languages’ control are employed routinely. This has the benefit of boosting their function across other cognitive domains, even those that have little connection to linguistic tasks.
We won’t deeply discuss personal advantages of being multilingual, because everyone can understand what they are, according to one’s personal life intentions. For example, it is quite evident that knowledge of other languages can increase career opportunities, offering a wider choice of professions in various fields and in different countries. It also enhances communication advantages, like the ability to talk with local people when travelling, and making friends of different languages and in different countries.
Much more important is the fact that bilingualism/multilingualism can open the door to other worlds, it can foster tolerance of other languages and cultures. The so called ‘cultural competence’ is one of the most valuable skill in today's global economy. Since bilinguals can enjoy reading, writing and talking in different languages, they have an access and greater exposure to different cultures, they can understand and appreciate literatures in various languages. For example, they can learn contemporary sayings and idioms, they can understand history, folk stories, music, movies, and so on, about different cultures. When you speak different languages (but also when you learn a new language), you get much more than vocabulary and grammar. Indeed, you can get an inside view on how people from another culture think, gaining a perspective that would be more difficult to understand without knowing the language. This wider cultural experience and deeper knowledge of different ideas and traditions, enhances greater tolerance of differences in creeds and customs among populations, the appreciation of these differences, and open-mindedness.
Summarizing, children who know more than one language can gain different advantages in life. Besides having future employment advantages and positive cross-cultural attitudes and friendships, they are better at focusing attention, switching between tasks, and learning other languages. It is important to stress once again that these advantages are gained no matter the languages we are talking about. It doesn’t matter if the languages spoken have a higher or a lower status in the community! The most important thing is to speak them!
Therefore, bilingualism and multilingualism in the context of (im)migration should be regarded as a resource rather than a factor of social exclusion. It is important to understand that the maintenance of all languages, both local (like for example the Carinthian language) and introduced by migration, it is a valuable opportunity to encourage bilingualism in children, with all the linguistic and cognitive advantages that can be achieved.
If you would like to share with us your experience as a bi/multilingual individual/family (What languages did you grow up with? Which languages do you speak at home with your family? What are the difficulties you encounter in everyday life? What are the funniest moments or misunderstandings?), or if you have any questions dealing with the topic, please send a message with object “multilingualism matters” to: email@example.com
We are looking forward to hearing your story!