Thursday, October 20, 2011

Learn a new language, get a new soul

I am reading a fascinating book called Raising a Bilingual Child by Barbara Zurer Pearson. I bought it because I have bilingual children, and was hoping to get advice on how to ensure that they learn at least one language (and hopefully both) thoroughly. Our children are“accidentally” bilingual – they have one Australian and one Finnish parent (who speak English to each other), and we live in Finland. By default, they will grow up with both languages.
However, it was interesting to find that Dr. Pearson’s book is aimed more at selling the idea of bilingualism to parents who would not otherwise have considered a bilingual upbringing for their kids - parents who are monolingual themselves, or are bilingual but hesitant about using their native language with their children (for example, because they are immigrants and their native language is not widely spoken in their new home country).
Dr. Pearson asserts that“Bilinguals…have shown themselves to be more flexible, divergent thinkers and superior problem solvers” and that “Bilingualism builds a better world, as well as a better mind.” These are lofty claims, but by God, what if she is right?

I have always believed that knowing more than one language broadens a person’s knowledge and perspective. For a start, you have learned an entire new set of words and grammatical patterns. More importantly, you have acquired the ability to speak with a whole new group of people, whose cultural background is different from your own. This opens up the possibility for a whole new understanding of who these people are and how their perspectives differ from your own. I found this out for myself after studying Japanese as a teenager, and going on to study and work in Japan for many years. What I now understand about Japanese people – their culture, their approach to life, the meaning behind certain expressions and gestures – is something I don’t think I could have fully gleaned from second-hand accounts.

Dr. Pearson quotes Francois Grosjean, a Swiss psycholinguist, in summing up these benefits: “[Bilingualism] broadens your scope. It means you have two worlds instead of one.” She also mentions a Czech proverb: “Learn a new language: get a new soul.”

What I did not know was that bilingualism, in and of itself, has been found to have tremendous benefits on the human mind and its functioning. Here are a couple of striking examples that Dr. Pearson gives (based on the results of scientific studies):

  1. Bilingual children acquire “metalinguistic awareness” (“knowledge about language”) at an early age. Every time they hear something, they must determine which language it is in before they interpret it. This gives them an earlier understanding than monolingual children of the concept that words are arbitrary symbols, and (putting aside onomatopoeic words like “meow” and “roar”) there is no link between the sound of a word and its meaning - the word and the thing it stands for are separate. For example, “dog” can mean dog, but so can “chien” (French) or “koira” (Finnish) or “inu” (Japanese). They also tend to develop greater awareness of the abstract connection between letters and sounds. Studies have shown that this early ability to think abstractly about language tends to make children better thinkers overall: they are more able to verbalize their own thought processes, plan how to solve problems, keep track of successful strategies, and avoid previously unsuccessful strategies in similar future situations.
  2. One study of 184 monolingual and bilingual patients with dementia found that the onset of dementia was delayed by an average of 4 years in people who had spoken two languages throughout their lives (onset at age 71 for monolinguals versus age 75 for bilinguals).

I was thrilled to hear of these potential benefits. I have sometimes worried that bilingualism puts extra pressure on children; it seems, though, that the extra effort is more than worthwhile. I also suspect (and possibly Dr. Pearson will address this in the latter part of her book, which I haven’t yet finished!) that young children don’t even feel that one or more extra languages in their life are a “burden” - like all other new information, they just soak it up and thrive on it.

My 6 year old daughter was born in Japan. For the first two years of her life, at home she was exposed mostly to English (and occasionally Finnish, though my husband was not yet on the bilingualism bandwagon at that point, and usually spoke English to her). When she was two and a half, we sent her to a local Japanese daycare centre. I worried a lot about whether this was a good decision, considering that she knew almost no Japanese when she started there. Would she be over-burdened and overwhelmed?

Initially, she had absolutely no idea what was being said to her. Interestingly, this did not seem to bother her. She repeated Japanese words and phrases verbatim. She listened intently. She copied what the other kids did in response to a teacher’s instructions. And one day (possibly only weeks after starting daycare) she started to speak in Japanese. Naturally, her first attempts were just single words and very short sentences, but she used them contextually correctly, clearly understanding what they meant.

Within a year, she was speaking and understanding at a level where, in the words of one of her teachers, “she has no problem with daily life here at daycare”. Within two years, her language ability was solid – even equal to that of some of her friends. I recently found a story she had dictated to me in Japanese at age 4. I was stunned at the richness and complexity of the language she had used: words like “battled”, grammatical patterns like “was swallowed up by”.

When we first came to Finland, she was four and a half. You’d think I would have realized by now that language learning was a breeze for small children, but still I worried that throwing her into the deep end with Finnish would be unfair, given that she had already had English and Japanese thrown at her. And so we found an English-speaking preschool. What I did not expect was how much Finnish she would learn at preschool – most of her classmates were native Finnish speakers, so naturally they spoke in Finnish in the playground, at lunch-time, and whenever else they were not “required” to speak English. After several months, one of her teachers mentioned to me that my daughter had started speaking Finnish “surprisingly well”. She started addressing her father in Finnish (to his surprise, and considerable pleasure). She started voluntarily watching Finnish kids’ TV shows, even when she could have chosen one of her many English-language DVDs. She tells me that when she dreams at night, it is almost always in Finnish.

Time will tell whether or not she has developed superior cognitive skills, or whether her brain will fight off dementia longer than a monolingual person's brain. Already, though, I believe that being able to talk to Japanese friends in Japanese, and Finnish friends in Finnish, has given her a broader cultural perspective than many adults. I also think it’s fair to say that she has advanced social skills for a child her age, and has a real sense of empathy when it comes to other people’s feelings. She has never been heard making judgmental comments about others based on their race or their ability to speak a particular language. In fact, even when I speak Finnish, poorly and imperfectly, she listens respectfully, and will tell me quietly and gently if she thinks I have made a mistake.

And what I do know is that when I hear her chatting and laughing with her Finnish friends, or watch her saying a cheerful hello to her Japanese teacher, I feel incredibly happy and proud of my passionate little linguist. She doesn’t care about metalinguistic awareness. She is just enjoying herself.



  1. I think its key to start them young as you have. I did 4 years of french in high school, hated every minute of it and barely remember anything. My son (7) is learning french at his school now, and like your daughter, he has fun with it, it all seems novel and amusing, what better way to learn?

  2. It's great that your son is learning French! I too didn't start learning a foreign language until high school, and although it really grew on me over time, it definitely wasn't as easy/fun as my daughter seems to find it!

  3. hmmmm. time to translate Wall E or however it is spelt. My kids are dying for me to read it. A friend from school sent it over from Berlin but the language is a little advanced for me.... I promised them I would translate it and read it to them. better get onto it....

  4. You do that, thelakehousewriter! They might even enjoy it in German. sometimes I've accidentally put our Maisy Mouse DVD on in Danish for my 2-year-old (due to a mis-click on the language menu), and she has happily watched it without even letting me know there was something amiss!