Knowing More Languages = Good

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American politicians, some parents, and a few others have previously expressed the concern that learning more than one language muddles the mind. This is, of course, absurd, and it is hard to believe why anyone really thought this. In fact, it could be said that having more than one language under your belt makes it easier to learn yet another language, a demand Americans often place on foreigners or immigrants to the US which is less often placed on the Americans (see this discussion).

Now, to support the idea that having more languages is good for the mind is being demonstrated at the Language Acquisition Lab at Cornell. According to Barbara Lust, “Cognitive advantages follow from becoming bilingual… These cognitive advantages can contribute to a child’s future academic success.”

There is a press report providing some of the lab’s results here.

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10 thoughts on “Knowing More Languages = Good

  1. One of the smartest (certainly sharpest) guys I’ve ever known was my boss in Switzerland. He was fluent (reading, writing and speech at a college level) in at least five (European) languages, and had smatterings of many others. He could switch back and forth easily – often holding multiple conversations in multiple languages simultaneously (on the phone and also at his desk).

    BTW – he wasn’t a linguist – he was a project director. His language skills (that in the US would have meant a job at the UN at least) were simply part of his baseline – his saleable skills were something else entirely (also equivalently strong!).

    The language thing is a British failing too. One that I struggle to overcome (Spanish & French – but with great difficulty). At least I can buy dinner, and have some idea of what I’m eating (and whether I’m being overcharged!).

  2. In language learning, it is easiest, and most beneficial to start early. But my experience with schools here in California is that my children can first learn a foreign language in Middle School (Grade 7 or so). Then the system is set up to prevent children from learning more than one (due to overlap of time slots for classes).
    And I just heard from my son in High School that he cannot take the next level French-language class, because it is at the same time as a required ‘Skills for Living’ class (which may be beneficial for many [learn to balance your checkbook! Not to have babies too early!], but is less than challenging academically).–
    Then, reinforcing what was said in the post, I observed that my children did not know (and did not have the vocabulary to describe) the grammar of the English language, they learned about that only after they were exposed to the grammar of a foreign language (German or French, which does have ‘more’ grammar, with conjugation and declination)
    My experience is that, in Europe, knowledge of a foreign language is considered an advantage by employers, even if the job does not involve selling to foreigners. Here in the U.S., the assumption seems to be that either everybody speaks English, or that -if needed- you hire some translator. So there is no incentive to learn a foreign language (except college requirements, which force high-schoolers or college freshmen to -often unwillingly- take just enough to pass the test).–

  3. I didn’t think there even was doubt that learning other languages was a positive thing. Who the hell comes up with this stuff?

    I’m semi-fluent in German, and can get by in Russian (although cyrillic takes me forever to read), and of course mostly fluent in English (with some butchering). I did discover while going through the American Educational System that we are terrible at teaching foreign languages. We have a very ingrained belief that one should teach vocabulary, then grammer, then test and test and test till we hate the whole concept.

    It’s pretty clear that we don’t learn this way. We learn vocabulary by association, and then grammer by pattern. Every once in a while it’s good to hear the actual rules, just to make sure we know what’s going on. For everything else, listening and speaking. We never, ever do this in America. At least not in my experience.

  4. I love learning languages and it is something that comes easily to me. The first foreign language I learned was Spanish, and my English grammar dramatically improved that first year. I never even knew about the existence of the subjunctive mood until I learned about it in Spanish.

    Then I decided to learn French at the same time. The very first week, my French teacher told me that I wouldn’t be able to do well in both classes. I ended up being the best student in her class, and it was really easy for me since I already learned another foreign language.

    As Spiv pointed out, there’s way too much emphasis on memorization of vocabulary, and that’s just not an effective way to teach. We also start teaching way to late. All children should start learning one language in early elementary school. My recommendation is to teach Spanish, since it is a relatively easy language to learn (almost completely phonetic and not as many irregular verbs), and it’s
    useful to know because so many people in the world speak it.

  5. “The very first week, my French teacher told me that I wouldn’t be able to do well in both classes.”

    really?! what an absurd notion. I had 3 different language classes in high-school (though admittedly my French is pathetic, and my Latin is getting rusty from lack of use), and I never encountered a problem learning all three simultaneously. Neither did anyone else in my classes, except when out French and Latin exams were too close together and the brain-mush that resulted from too much studying resulted in the occasional word confusion :-p

    on a different note though, I do experience severe language-confusion sometimes. either I’m looking for a word and can only remember it in all the languages I know except the one I’m using, or I sometimes say something in the wrong language (this generally happens when I have to switch between them a lot in a short time-span); worst is that my languages invade each other, so that I end up speaking in a 3-language-mix only understandable to a select few (my entire family uses a Polish/German version of Spanglish, and they all say that sticking to Polish only can be really difficult for them)

  6. I didn’t think there even was doubt that learning other languages was a positive thing. Who the hell comes up with this stuff?

    At least in the US, it’s not uncommon for non-native English speaking parents to only want their children to speak English.

  7. My mother did every single item noted in the “Tips to teach a child a second language” section at the press report link.

    She spoke Japanese to me since I was a baby, had me go to Japanese Language schools on Saturdays (where I had Japanese-speaking friends), had my grandmother send videotapes of recorded-from-TV cartoons and comics/manga from Japan, and had our family participate in celebrating various Japanese events.

    I have not spent that much time in Japan, but the last time I went there, a lot of people commented that I sounded just like a modern Japanese youth who has lived there their whole life (including the slang). When it comes to polite speech, though, I sometimes falter a bit.

    I did have the potential to be more than bilingual, what with my father being Swedish and my family living in Norway (and the Philippines before that) on US Air Force bases, but it was not to be. The problem was that, when I was around 5 years old, I had a severe problem of mixing words from several different languages within the same sentence. My first coherent sentence, according to my mother, was “I don’t understand you” in English. Sad, huh?

    A military doctor told my parents that I was suffering “language overload” and that the languages around me should be reduced to only two. Thus, I was taught only English and Japanese, as were my sisters who were born later.

    In my first year of kindergarten (English), I struggled to keep up with what the teachers were saying, and was regarded as being mentally slow. However, it turned out that this was mostly due to me having entered kindergarten at too young an age, and my language skills not having caught up yet. I repeated kindergarten (yes, it is possible) and the teachers’ assessments of me went from “slow” to “highly gifted”. I wasn’t mentally slow, I just didn’t understand what the words in the questions meant until then!

    As a funny aside, my parents once worried that I was colorblind because I couldn’t tell the difference between certain colors. The doctor laughed and explained that there was no way I could be colorblind (since I was female, and neither of my parents were colorblind). Turned out, I just kept getting the words mixed up :p My young little eyes were fine.

    Anyway, though I did stumble a bit when younger, I quickly became fluent in both English and Japanese, and had much better English grammar than my peers to boot. There is no downside whatsoever to knowing more than one language, so get your children to those language schools early! And make sure the non-English cartoons are entertaining for said children 😉

  8. My other language is German, which I can read as easily as I can read English (and also I can listen to audiobooks in German too, without difficulty). The one thing I can’t do, is to translate from German to English (or vice versa). I read once that if you learn a foreign language after about 12 years of age (I was 13 when I first started learning German), the new language is stored and processed in a different part of the brain to the native language). When I translate from one to the other, I can almost feel the words slowly percolating along connections from one part of my brain to the other, it’s so slow.
    I would think that learning the Grammar and vocabulary of a foreign language is just a necessary first step in learning a new language; without achieving at least a basic minimum, then progress is impossible.

  9. Duh. Who ever doubted that learning multiple languages is beneficial? Like others commenting here, I learned and lived in multiple languages. I joke that I’ve forgotten more lanaguages than most people (at least in US) ever learn. And I know it has helped me with my native language.
    I started with French in junior high through high school. When I wanted to add German in high school, I was not allowed because it would “confuse me.” But my French teacher tutored me in Hebrew to give me a headstart to take Hebrew in college. (Got As even though I was the only one in class who didn’t have 7 years of bar mitzvah schooling.) I went on to study Russian at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, German in Germany and Japanese in Japan. And I love dabbling in languages and writing systems.
    Neither of my parents spoke anything but English — or ever cared to. I am convinced that much of my so-called ability is attitude. If you think you are lousy at foreign languages, you probably will be.

  10. Like Monimonika’s mother we have been teaching our son Japanese and English. He’s also had to learn Swedish all by himself in nursery school over the past couple of years (he’s 5 now), which he’s done without too much difficulty. I wish my parents had pushed me into learning several languages at such an early age as he seems to find acquiring languages easy while I, like most older people struggle.

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