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Free topic: the power of languages

December 13, 2012 Leave a comment

Everyone knows that learning a language since childhood is far easier than learning it in adulthood because the brain is more receptive and open to new knowledge. Consequently, being bilingual or multilingual from an early age offers innumerable advantages that will be examined throughout this post. Firstly, I will look at the benefits that early language learning brings to our brains and overall way of thinking, and later I will move on to more generic advantages that being multilingual has.

In the past, experts believed that exposing children to two languages could hinder their cognitive development. They thought it was hard for them not to mix their lexis and that the influence of one language could make them structure sentences incorrectly in the other. However, more recent research has shown that this is not true and that in fact, even if at some point the two languages might interfere with each other, that tendency is soon outgrown and the way is opened for a more flexible mind, capable of learning even more languages, more easily and quickly than monolinguals. What is more, bilingualism improves cognitive skills not related to languages and delays the appearance of Alzheimer in old age.

According to researcher Ellen Bialystok, bilinguals are often better at controlling their attention – a function called the executive control system. The difference between monolinguals and bilinguals lies on their ability to monitor the environment. As researcher Albert Costa explains, “bilinguals have to switch languages quite often” and that “requires keeping track of changes around them in the same way that we monitor our surroundings when driving”. The executive function makes decisions about what to pay attention to, what to ignore or what to process, and bilinguals are better at filtering what to focus on.

The best way to test the executive control system is a method called the Stroop Test. It consists of showing people words in different colours and they have to say the colour and ignore the word. The difficulty is that the words are all names of colours. The mechanism used to overcome the brain’s tendency to read the word is the executive control system. Bialystok’s work shows that bilingual people continually practise this function, as both languages are active in their brains at the same time and they need to block one in order to speak the other.

As Kirsi Suutarinen explains in her post Are bilinguals smarter than the rest?, her 2-year-old daughter constantly switches between Finnish and Dutch (even in the same sentence) and is capable of knowing which language to use with each relative or friend. What is more, she shows an incredibly good memory. Like Suutarinen’s daughter there are many children enjoying the advantages that a bilingual environment provides.

Another proven benefit that being bilingual brings is related to the old age. In a study led by the neuropsychologist Tamar Gollan of the University of California, 44 elderly Spanish-English bilinguals were tested, and they found that individuals with a higher degree of bilingualism (evaluated by their proficiency in each language) were more resistant to the onset of dementia and other symptoms related to Alzheimer; “the higher the degree of bilingualism, the later the age of onset”.

Aside from all this, there are the more common rewards that knowing more than one language (even if it’s not since childhood) has. Globalisation has been a very common term over the last decades; barriers are being broken down and the entire world is unifying. Travelling ancompare it to. Furthermore, it usually forms a richer vocabulary, as a large amount of vocabulary in a language is very similar to that in other languages (because they come from Latin or Greek, for instance) or has directly been adopted from another language (like Spanish has integrated many English words in its lexis, or English from French).

Another great benefit is that being multilingual gives people lots of confidence when travelling, since they will be able to communicate in different languages depending on where they are. Globalisation has been a very common term over the last decades; barriers are being broken down and the entire world is unifying. Travelling and access to information from all over the world has never been easier and so, knowing more than one language turns out very practical.

It is advisable too, when starting business or making a deal with foreigners, to be able to speak to them in their language, or at least try, as it creates much stronger bonds and transmits greater trust than through a translator. Speaking of which, it has to be said that reading a book, an article or a piece of news in the original language is far better than reading the translation made by someone else. Considering that even though they have to be neutral, translators still need to interpret what they read, it is much more reliable to read the genuine piece in order not to miss any nuance the writer has wanted to include.

In conclusion, I think learning as many languages as possible is one of the best things people can do in order to broaden their horizons, and after discovering the many vantages they bring not only to our lives but to our brains I am much more convinced of the power of languages.


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