by Dr. Paola E. Dussias
Although most of the world is multilingual, the use of two or more languages in the United States has historically been viewed as a complicating factor, and has been confounded with negative attitudes towards immigration and cultural diversity. Those attitudes have created a great deal of mythology surrounding second language learning and language use. Among these is the belief that acquiring a second language as an adult can only be accomplished successfully by the few who possess a special talent for language learning. Likewise, although young children appear to be able to acquire multiple languages easily, there has been an assumption that introducing a second language “too” early during infancy will produce confusion. There has also been an assumption that codeswitching is a sign of pathology or incomplete language ability. The attitudes that have shaped the views of multilingualism in the United States have not only affected public perceptions, but also those of educators, health providers, and scientists. However, the assumptions and attitudes that have been prevalent historically have been turned around; we have come to see that assumptions about the dangers of multilingualism are simply mythology. Indeed, for language scientists, the multilingual speaker is now seen as a model for understanding the way that language experience shapes the mind and the brain. A set of research discoveries in the last two decades provides compelling evidence for the need to reverse the false beliefs about multilingualism.
So what have we learned? We now know that far from being a complication, multilingualism provides benefits to individuals at all points along the lifespan, from the youngest infants and children, to young adults, and to older adults facing cognitive decline. Young babies are not confused by hearing two or more languages; rather, they develop an exquisite ability to discriminate the languages they hear and learn to be more open to new language learning than their monolingually exposed counterparts.
Adult learners who are well past early childhood have been shown to be able to acquire sensitivity to the grammar of a second language despite their age. And codeswitching, which is a common feature of bilingual discourse in some communities, is not only rule governed but it also reflects a sophisticated cognitive strategy that enables listeners to exploit the features of bilingual speech as speech is produced.
We also now know that there is greater plasticity throughout the lifespan than previously understood. Contrary to the view that the brain evolved to speak one language only, the evidence suggests that two or more languages co-exist in the same brain networks, each language activating the other even when only one of the languages is in use. We might think that the engagement of all known languages would impose a terrible burden on bilingual and multilingual speakers, but recent studies demonstrate that while there may be some small disadvantages with respect to speed, those disadvantages are far outweighed by what bilinguals and multilinguals learn about how to control potential competition across the two or more languages.
The claim in the recent studies is that this ability to control potential competition across the two or more languages creates consequences more generally for bilinguals and multilinguals that enhances the ability to ignore irrelevant information, to switch from one task to another, and to resolve conflict across different alternatives. These consequences may be most apparent at the two ends of life; that is, for the youngest babies and children and for aging adults.
One striking finding is that the interactivity of the networks that support all of the known languages comes to affect the native language as well. The native language of a bilingual or multilingual speaker differs from the native language of a monolingual speaker, reflecting the influence of the second or third language on the first. What is remarkable is that these bidirectional influences can be seen at every level of language use, from the way speech is perceived and spoken, to the way that grammar is processed, and to the way we choose words to describe our perceptual experience.
An even more striking finding is that changes to the native language have been observed in second language learners at the earliest moments of new learning. The native language of second language learners is no longer like the native language of the monolingual speaker. One might think that these changes to the native language are a negative consequence of new language learning. However, that view fails to account for the variation that is normally seen even among monolingual speakers themselves. Most Americans accept the idea that people living in the South will speak with a different accent than people living in the Northeast or Midwest. Not all monolinguals are the same, and recent studies have begun to identify the ways that monolingual speakers of the same native language may differ from one another.
The findings reviewed here suggests that multilingualism provides exceptional consequences across the lifespan that reach far beyond the benefits of having two languages available for communicative purposes. Having two languages will of course enhance opportunities for social interaction, for economic advancement, and for increasing intercultural understanding. But being bilingual or multilingual also changes the mind and the brain in ways that create resilience under conditions of stress and that have the potential to counter some of the deleterious effects of poverty and disease.
The greatest challenges to multilingualism in the United States are characterized by the mythology about multilingualism. The new research, and especially studies that have been made possible by the revolution in the neurosciences, shows that all the languages that an individual knows and uses are processed in an integrated language system in which there is extensive interaction. That interaction across languages gives rise to competition across the known languages that requires regulation, and although that requirement may impose an initial cost during learning, it appears to be the other side of a process that produces significant benefits. The evidence on multilingualism leads us to think that new approaches to language learning that allow learners to experience the variation across the two or more languages, and that may produce language mixing and initial effortful processing, may be beneficial to long term outcomes.
*The work reported here was extracted from an article published by Judith F. Kroll and Paola E. Dussias in a paper published by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (Kroll, J. K., & Dussias, P. E. (2016). Language and Productivity for all Americans. American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Commission on Language Learning.