The benefits of multilingualism

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Age of learning languages

After a certain age you will never speak a language fluently. No matter how intelligent, literary or well spoken you are, as you get older, your brain loses its capacities when it comes to learn new languages. It is said that already 9 months after birth we start losing some of the synapses we use for our language(s) and the learning of them. It’s not a too disturbing fact though, since our general capacities for learning languages are astonishing and at least until ages around 9 or 10 years old the ability to learn a second or more languages is still incredible. After that, the ability diminishes quickly compared with what it was.

An interesting explanation of this is that of the linguist Noam Chomsky, saying that language acquisition is a device that enables us to derive the rules and characteristics from other speaking around us. However, after puberty this ¨mechanism¨ deranges and works less proper over time, which explains that adults over time have increasing difficulties in mastering a language. Not an excuse for not trying when you are older ever though (Learning should never cease1!), learning languages turns out to be quite beneficial for the mind as we will discuss below.

There are an estimated 6800 different languages on Earth (in Europe we have 24 official languages). An exact number is difficult to pin down since there are many dialects and languages, but also as many political controversies for acknowledging many as an ¨official¨ language. There are also people who have what is called distractive bilingualism, which applies to mostly unwanted situations such as with refugees or people who become occupied by a different culture. In such cases sometimes language and grammar education of one language is not completed, but integration with a second language is not completed either. These people are bilingual, but have a lower level of both languages than any monolingual speaker of either. Often these people end up speaking a mix between their mother tongue and a different tongue. Interestingly, around the world there are more multilingual speakers (also called ¨polyglots¨) than monolingual speakers, even though defining bi- or multilingualism is quite difficult.

Defining Multilingualism

Some people consider that to be bilingual or multilingual implies that you are completely competent and master a (different) language and maybe even sound as a native. On the other hand, you have people who consider getting around as a tourist is already sufficient and qualifies you for speaking a (different) language. Debates about the definitions of multilingualism and language fluency are older than we can remember. In general people use it quite broadly and consider all people between who can get around as a tourist and those who speak as the natives, are multilingual. Whatever you see as fluent in a different language or who are real polyglots, most people agree that learning extra languages at an early age is beneficial in many aspects.

Being multilingual for example is argued to increase some aspects of language learning, like the increase of word-learning performance in adults, combined with a general bilingual advantage for novel word learning compared to monolinguals. A monolingual group and two different multilingual groups (speaking English-Spanish and English-Mandarin) were tested in learning novel words in which the latter both outperformed the monolingual group. The multilingual brain they argue, is quicker, more agile, but also better to handle ambiguities and conflicts.

Others suggest that a multilingual person would even have a certain resistance against some forms of dementia, amongst which Alzheimer’s disease. If that’s true, could we then see learning languages like mental training, keeping your mind fit and flexible? The same investigations also report that in general the executive functions of the brain are enhanced. These functions; the cognitive control and supervisory attention system regulate and control the cognitive processes, including working memory, rationality, solving problems, planning and decision making.

Maybe not so surprisingly, both for the advantage to learning and the resistance to certain types of dementia, similar theories are to be found about early studying of mathematics and especially of music.

Multilingual individuals have a greater density of grey matter in the inferior parietal cortex, and multilingualism affects the structure and cytoacrchitecture of the brain2. While learning languages the brain gets re-structured and supposedly increases the brain’s capacity for plasticity. While babies and young children have a lot of connections and communication between both brain halves, this ceases to be so after a certain age. For adult people, new connections between brain halves are only made when learning new languages, using left hand instead of your right hand (or vice versa) for long incorporated habits (e.g. like brushing your teeth) and with the use of psychedelics.

Culture and Language relativism

Multilingualism is also very important on a cultural level; like Timothy Doner, who speaks 20 languages(!!!) more or less fluently, beautifully says3 that: ¨language is about being able to converse with people, to see beyond cultural boundaries and find a shared humanity. In a certain way you could say that you would need to speak a language fluently to profoundly understand his or her culture. Language philosopher and linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf theorizes that people fundamentally experience and conceptualize the world differently, caused by linguistic differences in grammar and its use, which he called language relativism, due to the similarities he saw with Einstein’s physical relativism.

Famous and much discussed studies of Whorf are on the Hopi, an indigenous people with a very interesting grammar. In their conversations they never speak about the future as we do, only about their expectations and memories. Their grammar according to him fundamentally gives them a different experience of time and reality.

You could argue that multilingual people thus would have the possibility of seeing and experiencing the world in different ways due to usage of different grammatical structures in describing and understanding situations and facts. Maybe this makes them more apt to be able to think-out-of-the box.

More reasons then, to celebrate tendencies of educational programs around the world to start teaching children several languages as soon as possible; sometimes as early as kinder garden. This might create a new generation of more apt and competent people if we are to believe the investigations. Hopefully this tendency pushes on and we’ll all be able to speak at least 2 or 3 languages fluently in the future. Of course, then as a contrast we have had the attempt of Esperanto; creating one language in Europe for all, which ideally had some tempting aspects. Now for most of Europe the second language is English of course, which is generally functioning as the common European languages for many students, universities and companies.

Internet and Globalization

Apart from multilingual educational tendencies, access to and contact with other languages grows every day. On the Internet you can find dictionaries and translation programs for any language, free exercises and courses, do language exchanges and interactive classes through Skype. Also, more and more jobs require people to speak at least two languages. Most big companies have at least in part of their business involvements to deal with foreign companies. It’s difficult to imagine Europeans of the last generation without speaking at least basic English apart from their native language. Who knows, maybe in a few generations monolingual people will be difficult to find.

You can imagine that for managing functions in businesses or governmental positions, or for that sake, any type of managing function; would preferably be occupied by a multilingual person than by a person who speaks only one language. Polyglots have a huge advantage on the labour market. For multinational companies bilingual personnel at some positions is indispensable, both on management level but also to communicate with people from small language communities. The formerly mentioned advantages benefits of multilingual minds don’t go unnoticed by governments and companies. Employers will definitely search for polyglots for high functions, so polyglots can count on a higher position and better salary.

As you see, both on personal level as well as for your career it is important nowadays to be multilingual. And as mentioned before: even though it’s more difficult to start learning a new language as a monolingual person after a certain age, it’s still very much worth the trouble.

And of course, if you are about to have children or have some youngsters, make sure they learn at least 2 or 3 languages! It’ll benefit them for the rest of their lives!

1 Xun Zi

2 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multilingualism#Brain_plasticity_in_multilingualism

3 http://ideas.ted.com/why-i-learned-20-languages-and-what-i-learned-about-myself-in-the-process/