Musings: Bilingual

This is a supplementary page, consolidating multiple posts on issues of being bilingual. Posts are in chronological order, oldest first.

Are you bilingual? (May 27, 2009)
Bilingual from Childhood (June 29, 2009)
Bilingual from Childhood -- reply (July 1, 2009)
Bilingual infants - sorting out "multiple speech structures" (September 14, 2009)

Other posts relating to bilingualism that are not on this page:
* Alzheimer's disease may be delayed in people who are actively bilingual (March 1, 2011)

There are also posts on language in general. Some of them may have implications for bilingualism. Here is one example, and it includes links to several other posts on language (including some that are just for fun).
* Are some languages spoken faster than others? (November 21, 2011).

Are you bilingual?

May 27, 2009

The following short note appeared in Nature highlighting a recent paper: (Nature 458:949, April 23, 2009)

Cognitive psychology: Bilingual baby talk

Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 106, 6556-6560 (2009)

How do babies in bilingual households cope with life in two languages? New work suggests that the challenging environment may enhance infants' cognitive abilities before they even begin to speak.

Agnes Melinda Kovacs and Jacques Mehler of the International School for Advanced Studies in Trieste, Italy, trained 40 infants aged 7 months from monolingual or bilingual households to anticipate a visual reward after a spoken cue. When the visual reward - a picture of a puppet - was shifted from one side of the computer screen to the other, bilingual infants were better able to adapt to the change and shift their gaze.

The research indicates an enhancement in executive function, a cognitive control mechanism that may aid the simultaneous acquisition of two languages.

* * * * *

The paper is at Cognitive gains in 7-month-old bilingual infants. (A M Kovacs & J Mehler, PNAS 106:6556, April 21, 2009.) It starts with a neat quotation from Borges -- maybe worth looking at even if you don't want to read any more details of the work.

Caution... Just because someone writes a paper on something does not mean all the conclusions are correct. We hope that at least the basic facts presented are correct, but there may be multiple interpretations possible, or complexities. This becomes particularly important when reading work beyond your own "expertise". This point is always true; it is fundamental to science. I noted it here because the work is so far from anything I normally read I cannot possibly vouch for it. It is fun and interesting. Logical. It was written, we presume, by people expert in their field, and it has passed some degree of review by others before being published. But that does not mean it is all correct. Time will tell. Please keep this in mind when reading any science, here or elsewhere.

Bilingual from Childhood

June 29, 2009

Jessica writes...

This actually came up in a conversation at work and the question that came up was: "Is it possible that growing up bilingual can results in impairing your ability to excel in either language?" I had read a brief note that it is common for children raised in a bilingual household to develop speaking abilities later than children exposed to one primary language. But the article, fitting my own opinion, finds no evidence that this delay in speaking is any sign of delayed development. The analogy was more along the lines of "if you build two homes, it will take you a little longer."

On a side note, and perhaps better not for open discussion: This question was followed by a somewhat arrogant comment that those people "clinging to" the other culture should just give in to speaking, and focusing on being, American. I am tempted to survey those on the list or elsewhere on their feelings of growing up bilingual and if they feel it helped, hindered, or had no relative effect on their ability to master either language, their ability to develop in other areas, or other social-effects that may otherwise have not been presented if they had only focused on/learned one language. But this may be a product of my pride and desire to point out a fair rebuttal.

My comments...

First, I hope some of you will respond to the request, and tell us your own experiences about being bilingual.

One important point that comes from the original post plus the comments above is the importance of separating different questions, and avoiding generalities. It would be bad to suggest that being bilingual (or being most anything else) is "good" or "bad". The original post made the point of one particular advantage of being bilingual. Other questions, including those raised above, remain open and subject to their own tests.

One issue buried in here is that in the US being bilingual is closely tied to being an immigrant. Further, some major immigrant classes are low income and perhaps more generally perceived to be of lower "status".

Recently, I came across a story that did claim a disadvantage of being brought up bilingual. It was a small point, and for some reason I did not keep it. Now, I wish I had. If anyone has anything to offer here, please speak up.

As to my own experiences... They are not too helpful. I do not recall being around any speakers of other languages as a child, except very casually. My grandparents on one side were indeed immigrants (from Lithuania), but I never met them. I really had no exposure to languages until high school, when I took German. Why German? Because that was the language science students took. Spanish might have been useful in the local community, though, as a practical matter the community was sufficiently segregated that I had little contact with Spanish speakers. As an adult, Spanish would have been useful to me living and teaching in California. The value of German was slight.

More replies or comments welcomed.

Bilingual from Childhood -- reply

July 1, 2009

Here is a reply from one of you. Since there are some sensitive issues in here, as we have noted in earlier posts, I have anonymized it, using X for his original country and language, and Y and Z for "other" countries or nationalities.

The reply is in two parts. Each starts with a short quotation, shown in bold, from the earlier post, to which he replies.

"... growing up bilingual and if they feel it helped, hindered, or had no relative effect on their ability to master either language"

One example that can complicate the English language (to me it's ESL) is modifications of words, such as plurals or conjugations.

In the X language, each word is itself. And to describe something about it, you would have a separate word doing so. The X words do not have plurals, or any derivations of a word. Another is tense, to describe an action and when it was performed.

Past-tense example:
English: She went to the mall.
X: She go to the mall already.
In English, We have "go", "going", "went", "will be going". In X, it's only "go". To emphasize when the action was done, "already" is added, or "will be", etc.

Same thing for words that have suffix: -ed, -ing, etc. Again, in X, to emphasize tense, a separate, discrete word is used in the sentence to describe when it was, is, or will be performed.

"One issue buried in here is that in the US being bilingual is closely tied to being an immigrant. Further, some major immigrant classes are low income and perhaps more generally perceived to be of lower 'status'."

Maybe, Maybe not. It may be a culture thing, but I compare parents to the founding fathers of the United States. The reason why we emigrated to a new land was to be free of oppression and to find new opportunities. The first few years we were on welfare but we got out of it. Long story short, we have our own business. All this has happened in 12 years. We came to the U.S. in 1992 and bought the business in 2004. We were new to the business, even new to the idea of owning a business, but now it is doing well.

On the other hand, there are always people from all society and cultures who do not make a difference in their lives and all they do is wait-and-wait and keep eating government's money. I think it's OK for some time but there are people who just live on welfare for decades.

The most popular excuse: I don't know English.

When we moved to the U.S., my father was about 52. He had a hard time speaking English, but he still push forward, being frugal, and make changes.

Living here in the [ region of US ], there are a lot of Y and Z people who emigrated to the U.S., who do not speak English, but they are in their 30s, and 40s. It's also how they were raised or maybe some people were born to follow.

To point out the idea of low income and low status...

I just finished reading the book "The Millionaire Next Door"; it explains the definition of "rich": Either rich in high-status artifacts, or rich in net-worth. Across the street from my home, there is a neighbor who a few years ago who had a Lamborghini, now he has a Ferrari F430. Many people think that this person is rich when they drive by to see it. I'm sure he may be rich in expensive and exotic materials, but has very little net-worth.

Bilingual infants - sorting out "multiple speech structures"

September 14, 2009

Here is a new paper on the issue of children growing up bilingual. In a controlled test, they show that 12-month old infants do better at sorting out "multiple speech structures" than their monolingual counterparts.

Flexible Learning of Multiple Speech Structures in Bilingual Infants. (A M Kovacs and J Mehler, Science 325:611, July 31, 2009.) It's a short paper with one key experiment. Look at the results for "Expt 1" in Figure 1C.

This is consistent with the general view that children who are bilingual from the start learn two languages just as well (and just as fast) as the rest of us learn one. What is less clear to me is whether this has any implications beyond learning language. Does an adult who was brought up bilingual have any differences in skills beyond the languages per se?

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