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The Benefits of Multilingualism

Delina Yemane Dawit

“To have Another Language is to Possess Another Soul”

-Attributed to Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor

Here’s an interesting fact: the majority of the world population is bilingual (able to speak more than one language) or multilingual (able to speak more than two). Yet, for a very long time, it was believed that multilingualism was a major weakness for growing children: scientists often said that childhood bilingualism was detrimental to linguistic and cognitive development, that it led to poorer results in school and weaker verbal fluency compared to monolinguals. Ironically, these “scientific conclusions” were made by scientists in countries where monolingualism is the norm. Nowadays, the fields of cognitive science and psycholinguistics say otherwise.

According to recent studies, speaking more than one language actually changes our cognition (i.e. the process of acquiring knowledge and understanding) and the cognitive architecture of our minds. Earlier this year, Dr. Viorica Marian, a leading cognitive scientist and psycholinguist, published a book entitled “The Power of Language: How the Codes We Use to Think, Speak and Live Transform our Minds”, in which she makes a case for the benefits of multilingualism by shedding light on the latest research findings in her field. Among the many benefits discussed in Dr. Marian’s book, some of the most significant are as follows:

  • In a multilingual brain, all languages are processed in parallel, meaning they are all active at the same time across all areas of the brain.

The fact that multilinguals have to process multiple languages at the same time means that they are constantly undergoing mental exercise, thus becoming stronger, just as physical exercise makes for stronger muscles. In neurological terms, a “stronger” brain means a brain with more pathways connecting different words, memories and concepts.

  • Multilinguals (also known as polyglots) are more creative and divergent thinking than their monolingual counterparts

A bilingual or multilingual person will see links between words and concepts that a monolingual would not notice: for instance, a Tigrinya-English bilingual notices a connection between the identically pronounced English word “full” and the Tigrinya word “ፉል” (peanuts) that a monolingual of either language would not notice. This kind of connection is particularly important for creativity, which essentially involves linking seemingly unrelated things to one another.

  • If you already know another language, you do not need to take time from your day to practice it in order to continuously reap the benefits

Regardless of whether or not someone uses their other languages in their daily lives, the mind constantly engages in an exercise of juggling the multiple languages and that continuous work changes the brain for the better.

  • Learning a different language can help your brain age better

Building multiple neural pathways ensures that the brain has “back-up” connections. To explain this concept, Dr. Marian offers a thought experiment: imagine taking a certain road home every day after work for many years. One day, this road collapses, and that route is no longer available. If you live in an area where many roads have been built over time, the collapse of one road will not stop you from reaching your destination, because you can always take alternative routes. But if there are no alternative routes, and that road was the only path from your work to your home, the road collapse poses a huge problem. The same applies for neural pathways, which are denser and more interconnected in multilinguals.

Not only are multilingual brains healthier, some studies have even discovered that knowing more than one language delays Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia by four to six years. It’s not that polyglots’ brains don’t undergo deterioration; it’s that there are enough neural networks that make it possible for the brain to function with less noticeable symptoms for a longer period of time. In other words, polyglots will be able to cope better. By the standards of scientific findings, this is a huge discovery: apart from a healthy diet and regular physical exercise, not much else was known to delay Alzheimer’s and dementia in a significant way.

In addition to these particular benefits, the author writes that bi- and multilinguals are also better at reasoning, multitasking, and at grasping and reconciling conflicting ideas. Some studies have also found that bilingual children seem to understand at an earlier age that others can hold different beliefs and knowledge from their own, thus becoming “less prone to bigotry, to demonizing things or people who are different from [them]”. Even in largely monolingual countries, more and more people are starting to understand the power of multilingualism. Take Mandarin for example: if we learn to speak it, we effectively open new channels of communication with a whopping 1 billion people! Moreover, languages are windows into cultures. The ability to speak another people’s language allows us to explore the culture in a more intimate way; and we can understand rich words and concepts that would have otherwise been lost in translation. The outcomes of speaking multiple languages are so significant that, in an interview with TIME, an American language-immersion specialist deemed monolingualism as “the illiteracy of the 21st century” (Gregg Roberts; TIME; July, 2013).

While anyone, of any age, can benefit from learning a new language, the most effective time (contrary to what was once believed) is during early childhood years. In fact, it’s been recently discovered that one can never start learning too early- it turns out, babies can differentiate between languages while they’re still in their mothers’ wombs, starting from the third trimester of pregnancy. In fact, experiments have found that newborns were able to recognize their mother tongue from a series of different languages. There’s also a consensus among psycholinguists that babies six months old and

younger are capable of hearing and differentiating all phonetic sounds (known as phonemes) in all human languages, even the most subtle variations. But with time, they learn to concentrate on the sounds that are present in their immediate environment, so they slowly let go of all the other phonemes of other languages. This is why a person who learns a language later in life ends up having a discernable accent, no matter how well he/she speaks the non-native language. On the contrary, if a child learns another language simultaneously to their mother-tongue, he/she is able to retain the phonemes of both languages; therefore can sound like a native speaker in both.

My sister-in-law, Misgana, is a prime example. She is Tigre, was born in Ethiopia and grew up in Keren. From a very young age, she was simultaneously exposed to Tigre, Tigrinya and Amharic, and as a result, can speak all three languages as well as any native speaker, without any telltale accents.

Furthermore, some studies have also seen that children who grow up with two or more languages are better at switching between tasks, meaning they can move from one activity to another more flexibly. They are also better at focusing on what’s important and ignoring what isn’t; which can help with their academic abilities during the school years. And among adults, using a non-native language renders them more likely to make decisions that are logical and of greater social benefits, as opposed to the native language, which usually elicits emotional responses.

These findings have essentially turned old myths on their heads, because they imply that monolingual countries like the US and England (where the vast majority are native English speakers) are actually at a disadvantage. Because English is the international lingua franca, native English speakers feel no immediate need to speak another. Even the immigrants whom they encounter speak to them in English, so there is no drive to learn anything else.

In contrast, in countries like Eritrea, with diverse ethnicities and languages, most nationals in the country are either bilingual or multilingual, in that they speak their mother tongue (which can be any of the nine languages spoken by the nine ethnic groups) and, if they have continued their education past the fifth grade (which is the case for everyone in the younger generation), English. In fact, it’s commonplace for people to speak three or more languages (namely Tigre, Tigrinya and Arabic) in places like Gash Barka, Anseba and both the Northern and Southern Red Sea Regions. I even met an octogenarian, the late Mr. Beyene Ghebreselassie Haile, a librarian by profession, who could speak nine languages (Tigrinya, Tigre, Geez, Arabic, Amharic, English, Italian, French and Spanish) and, surprisingly, was studying Mandarin Chinese until the year he died at the age of eighty-seven!

Thus, the true victors, in this respect, are the minorities of the world; and the people who needed to learn two or more languages throughout their lives.

So, finally, we can safely conclude that the more languages we know the better. The next time we come across language classes and feel tempted to join, these findings may just be the push we need to finally sign up. For what better gift can we give ourselves -and our children- than the gift of language?

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