Mind Matters Chapter 9: Bilingualism

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This series of articles has been adapted from [Mind Matters in Children] by Dr Kenneth Lyen. It delves into both the normal as well as the abnormal functioning of a child’s mind, and gives practical advice on how to manage children’s mental health and problems like ADHD, dyslexia, autism and depression.

What is bilingualism? 
Bilingualism is the ability to express oneself with ease in two languages.

The skills involved in bilingualism include the ability to listen, comprehend, speak, read, and write in a language other than one’s mother tongue.

With a few exceptions, the majority of the world’s countries are actually bilingual or multilingual, with the citizens speaking two or more languages. 

Singapore has four official national languages: English, Mandarin Chinese, Malay and Tamil, and we believe that these are probably the most divergent languages in the world, as they do not share common evolutionary ancestries. On top of these official languages, we have observed that Chinese families often speak different dialects. These dialects can be so disparate that they almost qualify as a separate language. For example, a Mandarin speaker may not understand Hokkien, Cantonese or other Chinese dialects. 

Nowadays, most schools teach a second or even a third language. Over the recent decades, English has become a popular choice for a second language in those countries whose main language is not English.

Tackling Bilingualism
Fundamentally, the brain tackles language in four ways. The first is the input when one listens to sounds, which is followed by the output of speaking. There is also input from reading visual images of words, and the fourth way is the output through writing.

The age at which someone starts to learn a second language can make a difference in the outcome. Let’s take a hypothetical family of four who has immigrated to Singapore from a country where they speak a different language, and do not speak any of the four national languages. The family comprises a 3-year-old daughter, an 11-year-old son, and their parents. There are three subsets of bilingualism, which are classified as follows:

a) Compound
The three-year-old has been learning the native language of the parents, and in Singapore, she attends a preschool and is immersed in English. She readily picks up the second language and begins to process the world around her in this language. Her command of English is excellent, and she might even pick up a local Singlish accent. However, as time passes, even children who are proficient in two languages, begin to become more dominant in one language. It should not be seen as a problem because there are many benefits in bilingualism (see below). This early childhood form of bilingualism is known as “compound”.

b) Coordinate
The teenage brother speaks his native language, but in Singapore, he has to learn English from scratch. Fortunately, he picks it up very quickly. At school he would speak English to his schoolmates, but at home, he might continue conversing in his native tongue. Over the years, he might speak English predominantly. His bilingualism is referred to as “coordinate”.

c) Subordinate
The parents are learning a secondary language but filters it through their primary native language. They sometimes have to think for a brief moment in order to understand what is said, translate the English into their native language and then back to English, in order to express their thoughts. They may retain elements of an accent related to their native tongue. This form of bilingualism is known as “subordinate”.

Because many bilingual individuals can become quite proficient in the new language, and barely colour the speech with their native accents or pronunciations, the difference in their speaking may not even be apparent to a casual observer. 

How does the brain handle bilingualism? 
Function magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron emission tomographic (PET) scans have shown increased connectivity between the frontal and posterior parts of the brain compared with monolingual people, thus enhancing brain activity as well as cognitive reserve.

In early childhood, the brain is more malleable than an adult’s and this plasticity allows the developing brain to use both right and left hemispheres in language acquisition. There is increased density of grey matter as well as more activity involving extensive areas of the brain including the frontal, parietal, and both left and right temporal lobes. Thus, learning a second language in a very young child will activate many areas of the brain. In contrast, when learning a second language in adulthood, the brain development is largely confined to the left hemisphere only. 

Combining languages
In countries where more languages are spoken, there is a tendency for the speaker to combine two or more languages. This is referred to as creole or pidgin language. This has been divided into three classes according to the degree of “severity”:

a) Acrolect: this is considered “mild”, where there is no significant difference between the spoken language from its origins, so listeners have no difficulty understanding.

b) Mesolect: or “moderate”, where there are several loan words, plus some dropping of indefinite articles and plural markings on some nouns. Examples of mesolect include “sabo” = “sabotage”, “shiok” = “great” (from Malay)

c) Basilect: considered the most “severe”, where the combination of words from two or more languages is so “severe” that foreign listeners have difficulty understanding what is spoken. This is referred to as heavy creole or heavy pidgin. An example is “I buay tahan” which translates as “I cannot tolerate”.

Many speakers of heavy creole or heavy pidgin languages have the ability to switch from this severe form of slang to acrolect or even to the pure speech of the language of origin.

Bilingualism and Dyslexia
The question often asked is whether or not bilingualism or multilingualism contributes to, or exacerbates dyslexia. Studies have shown that identifying dyslexia in children who are starting to learn a new language, is extremely difficult. Challenges with reading or writing a second language may be the result of basic intelligence, motivation, and frequency of usage of the new language. The consensus of opinion is that problems associated with bilingualism are distinct from dyslexia, and they coexist separately.

Benefits of Bilingualism
There are many benefits of learning another language especially at a very young age. This is backed up by scientific studies, and the bonuses include:

• Enhanced mental development
• Promoting greater focus, flexibility, problem-solving skills, and creativity
• Ordering of food more easily from hawker centres and food courts
• Watching movies without subtitles
• Enhancing memory and delaying memory loss
• Maintaining contact with family, the older generation
• Retaining cultural heritage
• Fewer racial biases, better multiracial integration, and making more friends
• Do more overseas business 

Bilingualism is a national policy in Singapore schools, and is compulsory in government schools. However, it has come under some criticism. The problem is that not everyone is good at learning a second language, and some struggle and suffer painfully. Another problem is that those who are good at learning languages are not encouraged to learn a third language, such as Malay, Korean, Japanese, or an Indian or European language. Learning extra languages should be encouraged for capable individuals, because it can enhance future careers and business entrepreneurship.

Disadvantages of Bilingualism 

Studies have shown there are certain drawbacks to learning two languages at a young age.

• Infants raised hearing and speaking two languages take longer to begin saying their first words. The explanation for this is that the infant needs to pay more attention and recognise more words with different phonetics from different languages.

• Young children tend to mix up the languages they are being exposed to. While they might learn the languages more readily, it seems harder for them to know whether to use the words from this language or that.

• Their vocabulary is usually more restricted. Although the total number of words they know is greater than that of a monolingual speaker, the number of words in each language separately is fewer.

On balance, we can say that the benefits of bilingualism are much greater than monolingualism, and that the disadvantages are only temporary. This sentiment is also echoed by language teachers and professional translators.

Will Modern Technology Discourage Learning Another Language?
Currently there are many devices that can automatically translate spoken words from one language to another. This means that there is no need to learn a foreign language. It is claimed that even culture-specific swear words, jargon, and slang are all translatable. So the question one will ask is: “Why bother learning another language?” The answer is that present-day devices may not be so good in translating the underlying emotions that accompany one’s speech. Subtle subtext can be lost. For example, when one says something sarcastic like “You think you are very clever?” it might be translated in a neutral way that the listener might take it as a compliment!

Bilingualism is an important ability that has many benefits, ranging from enhancing brain function to communicating with a wider range of people, delaying dementia, and enhancing overseas business. The younger a second language is introduced to a child, the better the long-term outcome. This is shown by the better command of the second language, and these individuals will be more flexible and creative in their thinking. Although bilingualism does not increase one’s intelligence, it does delay Alzheimer Disease. It has been shown that even if you did not have the good fortune of learning a second language in early childhood, there are still benefits learning one later in life. It exercises the brain, and as the saying goes,  even “a little exercise can go a long way!” Finally, one last quote from Geoffrey Willans: “You can never understand one language until you understand at least two.”

1 Costa A. The bilingual brain. Penguin Books 2017. ISBN 978-0-141-99038-5
2 Wikipedia. Multilingualism. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multilingualism
3 Wikipedia. Neuroscience of multilingualism. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neuroscience_of_multilingualism
4 Goksan S et al. Early childhood bilingualism: effects on brain structure and function.
5 Nordquist R: Definition and examples of acrolects in language. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-acrolect-1689057
6 Singlish 101. The top Singlish phrases you must know to chat like a local.https://thehoneycombers.com/singapore/singlish-101/
7 Mortimer T et al. Multilingualism and dyslexia.
8 Skibba R. How a second language can boost the brain.
9 Singh Leher. CNA. The benefits of bilingualism go beyond knowing two languages
10 Marian V, Shook A. The cognitive effects of being bilingual. Cerebrum 2012.
11 Blom E et al. The benefits of being bilingual: Working memory in bilingual Turkish–Dutch children. J Experimental Child Psychology 2014; 128: 105-119. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022096514001180
12 Wodniecka Z et al. Does bilingualism help memory? Competing effects of verbal ability and executive control. Int JBilingual Education and Bilingualism 2010; 13: 575-595. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/266617722_Does_bilingualism_help_memory_Competing_effects_of_verbal_ability_and_executive_control
13 Blarlo 2018. Advantages and disadvantages of bilingualism https://blog.blarlo.com/en/advantages-and-disadvantages-of-bilingualism/
14 Best voice translator devices on the market in 2021. https://gadgets-reviews.com/review/1767-best-voice-translator-devices.html

Written by Dr. Kenneth Lyen
Illustrated by Lim Daphne


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