Speaking multiple languages essay

Speaking multiple languages essay

Primitive people speak primitive languages. We know, from anthropological research, that there are no primitive people on Earth today; indeed, it may be that the «Neandertals» were the last truly primitive people. And, there are no primitive languages, either. All languages that we know about, including those that are no longer anyone’s native language (Latin, Homeric Greek, etc.) have all the properties of the so-called «modern» languages (French, Spanish, Russian, etc.).

Even languages that have been reconstructed, such as Proto-Indoeuropean (the parent language of most European languages as well as Persian, Hindi, etc.), show no signs of «primitiveness.» They have all the characteristics of so-called «modern» languages (see below).

Some languages are «harder» than others. While languages differ from one another in just which parts are simple and which are complex, all languages seem to be about equally complex or difficult to learn in their totality. For example, if we compare English and Russian we find that English nouns are relatively simple, while verbs are rather complex; in Russian, the nouns are hard and verbs are relatively simple.

Language is writing. If we ask a naive English speaker how many vowels English has, the answer is usually «five». This is because we tend to interpret any question about language as a question about the writing system. The English alphabet has 5 symbols that are normally used for the representation of vowels. But the English language has between 10 and 12 basic vowel sounds; this is the answer the linguist is interested in. Language is first and foremost oral; speech as a means of communication has been around for perhaps 200,000 years or more, while writing has existed for only about 6,000 as far as we know. Many languages, including many Native American languages as well as most of the creole languages of the Caribbean, exist without a written tradition. This in no way diminishes their language-ness.

Grammar is a set of prescriptive rules. When we think of grammar, we tend to think of the sorts of rules drilled into us by our language arts and English teachers: «Don’t end sentences with prepositions!» «Don’t use double negatives!»

When linguists work to discover the grammar of a language, they are looking for descriptive rules that model the linguistic patterns which people carry around inside their heads. We follow most of these rules unconsciously. In most cases no-one ever teaches them to us (see below); and, in most cases, we cannot articulate them. We «know how» to use our language, but we don’t typically «know why.» The interesting thing is that these rules of our descriptive grammar are frequently far more subtle and complex than anything the language arts teachers tell us about.

This ain’t no joke.

Ne bith thær nænig ælo gebrowen mid Estum.
not be there not-any beer brewed among Estonians
‘There is no beer brewed among the Estonians.’

Furthermore, in some languages, like Spanish and Russian, so-called «double negatives» are the rule, rather than the exception. Note the Spanish and Russian expressions for I don’t see anything.

Spanish: Yo no veo nada.
I no see nothing
Russian: Ya ne vizhu nichevo.

These are the normal, indeed the only, way of expressing this in Spanish and Russian. If language worked like formal logic, Spanish and Russian speakers would be suffering from a permament case of illogic. Since speakers of Spanish and Russian appear to be normal human beings, we have to conclude that language does not obey the rules of formal logic.

Thus, the rule against double negatives formulated by Bishop Lowth is not a grammar rule, but rather a social rule having to do with what he considered to be the acceptable use of English.

Language is pure and unchanging. As a conservative society heavily focused on written, rather than oral, forms of language, we tend to think that change, in language as in many other things, is bad. A whole industry of language «experts» such as Edwin Newman and William Safire regularly rant and rave against whatever shift in meaning or usage is current. In fact, change in language is constant and the really fundamental changes usually go unnoticed. For example, between Middle and Modern English many English vowels changed their pronunciation, so that words like «house» and «wife», today pronounced [haws] and [wayf], were pronounced as [hu:s] and [wi:f] by Chaucer. These sorts of changes, and others, are still going on in English even as we speak.

An analytic model of language

Syntax. Speakers have to know how to combine their words into meaningful sentences that call attention to something and then provide information about it. Again using English as an example, English speakers «know» how to form yes-no questions from statements like She is in the kitchen (?> Is she in the kitchen?) by appropriate movement of is.

Semantics. Speakers must know the meaning of the words they use.

Pragmatics. Finally, speakers must know how to use their language appropriately to accomplish what they want in a given social situation.

However, the knowledge native speakers have is mostly unconscious knowledge; they «know» how to say it, but they (usually) can’t tell you how or why they say it that way.

Language as both biology & culture

All normal human children, everywhere, acquire the language of their social setting at about the same pace and in the same way. They do so without formal training, and they do so in social and cultural contexts which differ in terms of what kinds of linguistic interactions are supposed to be appropriate between parents/caregivers and infants. These differences do not seem to affect the rate or quality of children’s acquisition of language; in a sense, children acquire language in much the same way as they acquire the skill of walking. However, children who are isolated, for some reason, from all forms of linguistic interaction do not acquire language, and if they reach puberty without exposure to language they may never be able to acquire more than a very rudimentary linguistic ability.

By the time they are around 3-4 years of age, children have mastered some of the most complex and subtle rules of their language, rules which no teacher of language could ever teach them. Of course, they still have lots of vocabulary to learn, as well as some of the pragmatic rules of language use in different social situations, and they have to learn to read and write.

While the underlying shape of language is biological, any given language itself is a cultural artifact. The best way to illustrate this is to take the words for the domesticated animal which English speakers refer to as a dog. All languages have a word for this animal; no language has a word for «half-a-dog.» This seems to result from a property of the human brain that guides our perception and representation of natural objects in the world, like dogs, which come to us in whole «packages» (other candidates might be rocks, trees, birds, and so on). At the same time, though, the words we find in different languages

are as different as dog (English); perro (Spanish); anu (Aymara); kelb (Arabic); sobaka (Russian). None of these words has a privileged connection to the animal itself. Each is an arbitrary but conventional answer to the problem of naming these familiar domesticated animals.

The nature of language

Infinite use of finite media. Although languages are complex, they are not infinitely complex. The number of rules that anyone needs to «know» to create sentences in their language is relatively small, and the number of different kinds of sentences is quite small. Still, the number of sentences that can be produced by any speaker of a language is potentially infinite.

Multiple patterning. Language is patterned at a number of levels of organization: sounds are patterned into phonemes, phonemes into words, words into phrases, phrases into sentences, sentences into larger units of discourse. This is what makes the infinite use mentioned above possible.

Predication. All languages make it possible for their speakers to name something and then make some kind of assertion about whatever was named. In other words, all languages allow for sentences that contain a subject and a predicate. We’ll explore this further in the unit on syntax.

Learnability. A central fact about all known languages is that they are all learnable by human beings. All normal human children acquire the language of their social group, and many (perhaps most!) go on to acquire more than one.

Traditional transmission. While all humans appear to have a built-in, genetically provided capacity for language acquisition, the actual acquisition of language must take place in a social context. The social context determines whether the language acquired is English, Russian, or Inuit, etc.

Displacement. Unlike most animal vocalization systems, which require that a stimulus be physically present for the vocalization to take place, human language allows us to talk about things that are absent in either space or time, or both. Without this feature, humans would not be able to talk about dinosaurs, or Cleopatra. We can add that this feature also allows us to talk about things that never existed, such as Klingons. Without it, we could have neither history or fiction.

Openness. Also unlike other animals, which typically have a fixed set of vocalizations, humans can increase the number of expressions at their disposal by inventing words. This feature allows us to add new words to our vocabulary such as hard drive, internet, and gigabyte.

Language & dialect

The analytic model of language includes the notion of linguistic relativism, which suggests that there is no point in trying to rank languages on any kind of scale. All human languages that we have any direct information about appear to contain all the characteristics necessary for language. In this view, there is no qualitative difference between a language and a dialect; the reasons why a particular variety of speech gets labeled as a dialect instead of as a language must be sought elsewhere. In particular, the reasons are to be found in the political, social, and economic value placed on the speakers of the language variety in question. The people who wield political, economic, and social control speak the «language»; those who do not speak the «dialect.»

The realization that languages and dialects are not qualitatively different, and that attitudes toward them really reflect social prejudices, has led some linguists to say that a language is «a dialect with an army and a navy.» For linguists, then, what counts as a «language,» as opposed to a «dialect,» is socially and culturally negotiated; not determined by some objective linguistic truth. Sometimes the negotiation is spectacularly unsuccessful, as when the Oakland (California) school board attempted to declare African American Vernacular English (Ebonics) a «language.» There was a great public outcry against this, but almost nobody understood the real reason: African Americans in the US do not have «an army and a navy»; therefore, they are not entitled to have a «language.»

I tend to avoid the difficulty of the word dialect by using variety instead. It seems easier and less judgmental to speak of varieties of English such as British, Australian, North American, or West Indian. We can even talk about varieties of creole English, such as Jamaican, Trinadadian, Barbadian, Belizean, and so on. Or, we can go in the other direction, and discuss varieties of Romance such as Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian; varieties of Indo-European such as Germanic and Balto-Slavic; or even varieties of human language such as Indo-European, Austronesian, and so on. It all depends on what level of abstraction we are interested in.

Although from an analytic viewpoint they «know» a language as well as anyone, speakers of non-standard varieties of language are often assumed by the folk model to be language-deficient. In the Caribbean, this manifests itself especially when creole-speaking children get to school and come up against the standard language in an intense way for the first time. Teachers, who through no fault of their own very often have only minimal training, are aware only of the folk model for language. They assume that deviation from standard language forms is evidence for a lack of language, and that children «have no grammar.» The analytic model of language tells us that all normal human children «have grammar» but that grammar is their own knowledge of their native language, not the rules written down in school books.

The advantages of speaking two languages

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Speaking more than one language may confer significant benefits on the developing brain. Research has now shown that bilingual young adults not only fare better in the job market, but are also more likely to demonstrate empathy and problem-solving skills.

The fact is that American adults are largely monolingual English speakers, even those who began life speaking more than one language. Based on the latest research, it might be time to rethink the emphasis on monolingualism in the US.

Speaking two languages has advantages

Over the past decade, my research has focused on the academic, social, and civic development of immigrant youth, specifically the ways in which schools shape how these students experience learning, friendships, and their communities.

As a former elementary bilingual teacher, I saw how full proficiency in both languages offered students significant academic and social advantages.

What was missing, however, was the link between my students’ early social and academic edge, and their entry into the job market as young adults.

For all the research that supports childhood bilingualism, it is only recently that scholars have begun to understand bilingualism in adults’ professional lives.

Bilinguals show higher test scores, better problem solving skills, sharper mental perceptions, and access to richer social networks.

In addition, young bilinguals are able to draw support from mentors in their home language communities, and from the dominant culture.

These young people benefit from the wisdom of the adage: the more adults who invest in a child, the stronger she will be. The bilingual child benefits from being raised by two or more villages!

Bilinguals more likely to get a job

Not only are bilingual young adults more likely to graduate high school and go to college, they are also more likely to get the job when they interview. Even when being bilingual is not a requirement, an interview study of California employers shows that employers prefer to both hire and retain bilinguals. Today, high-powered Fortune 500 companies hire bilingual and biliterate employees to serve as client liaisons.

Research links bilingualism to greater intellectual focus, as well as a delay in the onset of dementia symptoms. Frequent use of multiple languages is also linked to development of greater empathy.

Yet, despite research evidence, 4 out of 5 American adults speak only English.

English-only movement discourages another language

This is true for even those adults who began life exposed to more than one language. In the process of growing up American, many potentially bilingual children of immigrant parents lose their home language to become English monolinguals.

The powerful social and political forces behind the English-Only movement testify to the perceived threat of bilingualism . Every day, schools and districts across the nation succumb to external pressures and cut bilingual instruction.

Historically, research investigating bilingualism and the labor market has employed US Census measures that do not distinguish proficiency levels in the non-English language.

Most national data-sets define bilingualism with very broad strokes that do not distinguish between: a respondent who speaks only Spanish, one who speaks Spanish and a little English, and a third who is fully bilingual and biliterate. Failure to capture this heterogeneity obscures any clear relationship between bilingualism and the labor market.

Only recently have NCES data begun to include measures of self-reported proficiency in the home language, while other, more immigrant-specific data-sets have begun to ask these questions.

Bilingualism related to higher earning

Of late, newer data and sharper analytical methods provide a far richer measure of bilingualism and individuals’ ability to read and write in non-English languages.

The ability to distinguish between oral proficiency in one or more languages and actual literacy skills in two or more has allowed researchers to identify an economic advantage to bilingualism – in terms of both higher occupational status and higher earnings in young adulthood.

The new data-sets measure bilingualism in younger generations who enter a labor market defined not by geographic boundaries, but by instant access to information.

Relationship between bilingualism and intelligence

Beginning in the 1960s, linguists began to find a positive relationship between bilingualism and intelligence.

Building on this work, researchers found that elementary aged bilingual children outperform their monolingual peers on non-verbal problem solving tasks.

Then, in the late 1990s, research emerged showing that even when controlling on working memory, bilingual children display significantly greater attentional control to problem solving tasks than monolingual children.

Currently, researchers have begun to use data-sets that include more sensitive measures of language proficiency to find that among children of immigrant parents, bilingual-biliterate young adults land in higher status jobs and earn more than their peers who have lost their home language.

Not only have these now-monolingual young adults lost the cognitive resources bilingualism provides, but they are less likely to be employed full-time, and earn less than their peers.

Americans are beginning to grasp the cognitive, social and psychological benefits of knowing two languages.

Only 1 in 4 Americans can talk in another language

Historically notorious for their English monolingualism, a recent Gallup poll reports that in this nation of immigrants, only one in four American adults now reports being conversationally proficient in another language.

However, much more needs to be done if our nation is to remain a global leader in the next century.

Schools’ role in the maintenance and development of potential bilinguals’ linguistic repertoires will be critical to this process. Whether through bilingual instruction or encouraging parents to develop their children’s home language skills, what schools do will matter.

Today’s potential bilinguals will contribute more as adults if they successfully maintain their home language.

Educational research leaves little doubt that children of immigrant parents will learn English.

Where we fail these children is in maintaining their greatest resource: their home language. It’s something we should cherish, not eradicate.

This article is published in collaboration with The Conversation. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Rebecca Callahan is an Associate Professor Bilingual/Bicultural Education, Cultural Studies in Education at University of Texas at Austin.

Image: Plaster phrenological models of heads, showing different parts of the brain. REUTERS/Chris Helgren.

Speaking More Than One Language Could Sharpen Your Brain

Speaking more than one language does the brain some good.

A recent study found that bilingual speakers may actually process information more efficiently than single-language speakers. Researchers from Northwestern University, in Illinois, and the University of Houston used brain imaging to look at bilingual people’s comprehension abilities. They found that people who speak more than one language are comparatively better at filtering out unnecessary words than monolinguals, whose brains showed that they had to work harder to complete the same mental tasks.

The study, published in the journal Brain and Language, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to look at what’s called coactivation and inhibition in the brain. Coactivation is the ability to have both languages simultaneously active in the brain, while inhibition is that ability to select a correct language while hearing more than one at a time. The researchers studied 17 Spanish-English bilinguals and 18 monolinguals, and had them undergo tests that assessed their brains’ ability to eliminate irrelevant words.

For example, in one task the participants heard the word cloud and were then immediately shown four pictures. One of the photos was of a cloud, and another was a similar-sounding word like clown. The goal was to watch how quickly the brain could make connections to the correct word. Bilinguals were consistently better at the task.

The results create a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg scenario. Is a bilingual person better at such tasks because of their expertise in both languages, or are people with greater comprehension capacity better equipped to master multiple languages? It could be a mixture of the two. The researchers of the new study believe that being bilingual is a constant brain exercise. So instead of tackling a puzzle, why not give a new language a shot, if not solely for the brain challenge.