Contributed by Clara Blázquez Booth
“To have another language is to possess a second soul.”
If you asked people whether they would like to be bilingual I think most people would say “Yes” without even thinking about it. Bilingualism is now generally considered something positive and highly desirable but this has not always been the case.
Until relatively recently it was thought bilingualism could be detrimental to a child´s learning and general development and there are still many myths surrounding the subject. Some people might think “how confusing for a child to have to learn two languages, poor thing!”
However, recent studies have painted quite a different picture. It has become obvious that a child can cope with two (or more) languages and even adults can learn and use a language other than their mother tongue, although, unfortunately, as we all know, this entails a bit more effort. As we also know, we live in a globalised world, where speaking more than one language is becoming ever more necessary, with thousands of people studying languages, high mobility rates within countries and many mixed couples bringing up their children bilingually. It may well be that in the future being bilingual will be a common occurrence, which hopefully will lead to a better understanding of the issue.
So what has changed in recent years, what do we now know about bilingualism? There have been a series of studies which have helped to see bilingualism in a more positive way.
Even though it is not yet known exactly how the brain stores different languages, recent studies have shown how bilingual people perform in different tasks. It seems bilingualism promotes the individual’s creativity and ability to solve problems, by enhancing mental flexibility, and enables situations to be perceived in a different way. It is thought that increased metalinguistic awareness creates a way of thinking that is more open and objective. However this improved mental flexibility that
develops in bilingual people influences more than their problem solving or linguistic skills; language appears to change the way the world is perceived in individuals that speak different languages.
What is more, new research explains how speaking more than one language may translate to better mental health as some recent studies have correlated bilingualism with the delayed onset of dementia for as long as 5 years. It could be that being bilingual can offer protection from the symptoms of dementia and this would also suggests that the increasing diversity in our world populations may have an unexpected positive impact on the resilience of the adult brain.
From a cultural and social point of view the advantages are also obvious. It is not just speaking more than one language; it is also the opportunity to participate in different cultures, being able to speak to people from different parts of the world and also the understanding of their literature, songs, cinema or traditions. This means that bilingual people are usually more open-minded, listen better and are more appreciative of different cultures; think of all the things you can access by not having that language barrier when travelling abroad.
It is also clear that nowadays speaking more than one language can be very useful when searching for a job either in your own country or for finding work opportunities abroad. It has become an asset which makes a candidate stand out from the rest and in other cases it is an essential requirement for the job.
Although there are many positive aspects about being bilingual, undoubtedly it is not always easy to achieve, especially when a family is not bilingual and a child does not learn another language from an early age. Even in the case of bilingual families we must remember that language is something that is alive, dynamic, constantly changing and expanding but unfortunately it can just as quickly deteriorate or be forgotten if not used. Language depends on the circumstances and situations you find yourself in and the need to use it. So if you are bilingual it is important to continue to reinforce all your languages and if you are not,
why not start learning a new one! Remember,
“If we spoke a different language, we would perceive a somewhat different
– Ludwig Wittgenstein
Author: Clara Blázquez Booth
Clara Blazquez-Booth is a Speech Therapist working at Sinews Multilingual Therapy Institute. Her multilingual upbringing has permitted her to acquire English, Spanish and French at home from birth and has given her a special insight into language acquisition as well as an understanding of the needs of children exposed to more than one language from a young age.