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Bilingualism: Valuable for the Brain and Society

By Heather Singmaster

I recently had the opportunity to see Jared Diamond, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Guns, Germs, and Steel, speak on his new book, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies

The book's premise is that we have much to learn from traditional societies—that is those that are not WEIRD: "Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic." The only traditional societies left today are in New Guinea (where Diamond has studied extensively) and the Amazon Basin. He argues that by studying these cultures, we can improve our health and wealth.

An entire chapter is devoted to the importance of bilingualism and multilingualism, and the development and spread of languages. In traditional societies, multilingualism was (and is, for the very few that remain) widespread. While many in the West fear that our children will be confused if they are exposed to more than one language at a time, kids in traditional societies begin learning additional languages from birth—and not just one or two. Diamond can't think of a single person he has met in New Guinea that speaks fewer than five languages (and yes, they are all "mutually unintelligible languages," not dialects). In Europe since the end of World War II, there has been a re-emergence of multilingualism, which Diamond attributes to economic and political integration, as well as universal education, and the "spread of English language mass media."

Here in the U.S. we bask in the luxury of English as the language mass media and of business. Of course that means we are missing out on understanding other cultures—they get us but do we get them? Denmark, as the seventh richest country in the world, doesn't shun the learning of a second language—they value the speaking of Danish, English, and other European languages as tools for conducting business.

Diamond offers a socio-economic argument for multilingualism, too. "Groups whose language and culture disintegrate tend to lose their pride and mutual self-support, and to descend into socio-economic problems," writes Diamond. To see this, we don't have to look any further than our own Native American population. For centuries the government insisted that they be taught in English and prohibited from learning their native languages. Repeatedly they have been told their languages and cultures are worthless. The result? They are among the poorest segment of our society. Why not try valuing culture and language instead? Diamond points to bilingual Cherokee who are more likely to pursue their education, get jobs, and make more money than those who don't learn Cherokee. Encouraging these types of programs would be a cheaper and much more valuable contribution to society.

There are large direct benefits for bilinguals—to start, they have a much larger vocabulary, 6,000 words (for example 3,000 in English and 3,000 in Mandarin). Another is improved "executive function" or cognitive control. Whatever you are doing right now—say, reading this post—you have to focus on while suppressing the other 99% of thoughts fighting for priority in your head. This is what allows you to focus on problem solving, moving between tasks, and recalling words and information. (Are you tired of hearing all of these terms after the past two weeks of PISA coverage?) Monolingual people may have an easier time calling up a word because they have a smaller vocabulary to file through. But bilingual people must keep their languages separate and know which stock to call upon at the right moment in the right conversation. This may sound like a detriment—aren't bilinguals slower on the draw?

Studies have shown this is not true. Bilinguals are always unconsciously using their executive control, every time they think, listen, and speak. Therefore, they are constantly practicing this skill and improving upon it—like an athlete or artist. Diamond shares studies demonstrating that the skill these bilinguals are practicing is the solving of problems—specifically problems with rules that are confusing or constantly changing or where misleading information is involved. I don't know about you—but that sums up half of my life!

And another benefit suggested by recent studies is that life-long bilinguals will experience a delay of 4 to 5 years in the onset of Alzheimer's disease. For a disease that leads to death in 5 - 10 years after onset, this is huge. For many people this fact alone may be the deciding factor in raising their child to be bilingual.

This work is really interesting, not just as another argument for studying other languages, but also as a reason to study other cultures. Sometimes we need a new lens through which to view the world—even if it is not new at all and comes from traditions we have collectively forgotten. I encourage you to read The World Until Yesterday and open yourself up to a new, yet somehow familiar, perspective.

Follow Heather Singmaster, Assistant Director, Asia Society, on Twitter. 

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