Spotlight on Languages
True bilingualism is a relatively rare and a beautiful thing, and by "true," the author of this article means speaking two languages with the proficiency of a native - something most of us will only dream of as we struggle with learning languages in school and beyond. Highly competent bilingualism is probably more common in other countries, since many children growing up in the United States aren't exposed to other languages. But the steps along the road toward bilingualism can help a child's overall facility with language. And early exposure to more than one language can confer certain advantages, especially in terms of facility with forming the sounds in that language. The author reviews some strategies that parents use to promote bilingualism in their children, its benefits, and some of the obstacles to achieving true bilingualism, something that requires great effort and focus. The author also reminds us that the languages you learn as a child are important, but so are the languages you learn later in life and that the human brain is amazing, and the human capacity to acquire language is amazing.
We know that learning more than one language enables new conversations and new experiences. Less obvious advantages include cognitive benefits, such as improved executive function - which is critical for problem solving and other mentally demanding activities. Researchers in Psychology have found that children in multilingual environments have social experiences that provide routine practice in considering the perspectives of others: They have to think about who speaks which language to whom, who understands which content, and the times and places in which different languages are spoken. It seems that these experiences enhance the basic skills of interpersonal communication.
A reflection from Simone Weil in her "Letter to a Priest", that a change in religion can be as dangerous a thing as a change of language for a writer, leads the author to reflect on additional insights on writing in a second language, from Samuel Beckett, an Irishman writing in French, and from the Russian writer Joseph Brodsky writing in English. It seems that in the process of adopting a second language as a means of expression, you don’t really change languages; the language changes you. Also, the author notes that writing literature in another language has a distinctly performative dimension: as you do it something happens to you, the language acts upon you. The book you are writing ends up writing you in turn.
In contemplating the benefits of language study, many of us consider the practical aspects of fluency in a second language. These typically include the ability to communicate with people that we would otherwise not be able to approach for conversation or insight. Another consideration involves understanding language as a cultural construct, and hence knowledge of a second language leads to a deeper appreciation of its culture. A recent article in the New York Times reveals another advantage to achieving fluency in a second language, as it reviews research showing that bilingualism leads to significantly enhanced cognitive abilities. Interestingly, the article points out that these benefits also accrue to those who learn a second language later in life.
The author, the son of Guatemalan immigrants to the US, speaks about his experience growing up in Los Angeles without the benefit of bilingual education, never learning to read or write Spanish and as a teenager speaking at the linguistic equivalent of a second grader. As the author remarks, Californians believed that children like the author were smarter without Spanish. But even as Donald Trump was elected president, Californians approved a ballot measure to expand bilingual education in public schools. For Latino immigrant children, Spanish is the key to fuller communion with their elders and to a better understanding of their family histories. They are smarter in fact for every bit of Spanish they keep alive in their bilingual brains.