Benefits of Being Bilingual

8 May

“Language is not merely a reproducing instrument for voicing ideas but rather is the shaper of ideas… We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages.” (Benjamin Whore, 1897-1941)

Back before my daughter was born, which in some ways feels like a different life, I used to teach CEGEP (community college). In one of my courses, we talked briefly about knowledge and how language shapes it.

“How many of you speak at least two languages?” I would ask, as an introduction.

Every hand in the class would go up. Not only do I teach in bilingual Montreal, the school where I work is in a very multicultural neighbourhood where many students are first or second generation immigrants.

“How many of you speak at least three languages?” I would ask. Always quite a few hands would go up, sometimes most.

“How about four? Five?” Usually, at least one or two students in my class spoke five languages.

Then I would ask them, “In what ways does learning a second (or third, or fourth…) language contribute to and expand your knowledge of the world?” We would discuss. We talked about how translation is more complicated than just substituting a word from one language for a word in another. How languages are shaped by culture and context. I gave them some real examples of mis-translations to illustrate the point. For example:

“We take your bags and send them in all directions.” (In a Danish airline ticket office)
“You are invited to take advantage of the chambermaid.” (In a Japanese hotel)
And my favourite:
“Ladies, leave your clothes here and spend the afternoon having a good time.” (In an Italian laundromat)

Or did you know that Puijilittatuq is Inuktitut for: ‘he does not know which way to turn because of the many seals he has seen come to the ice surface.’? I guess we don’t have a concise expression for that in English because… we probably don’t need to say it very often!

Not only does knowing more than one language help you to function in an increasingly globalized world, it also expands your understanding of culture and language and the way the world works.

I was interested to see that apparently there are  10 Proven Brain Benefits of Being Bilingual. This article brings up some interesting points, some of them surprising (did you know that bilingualism apparently staves off dementia?). This makes sense to me though, because learning a second language doesn’t just mean memorizing more vocabulary; it means expanding your understanding of the world. I guess it makes sense that that makes your brain work harder, keeping it in good shape.

For all of these reasons, I’m happy to be living in a bilingual city and that my little munchkin has been being spoken to in three languages since the day she was born.

Many months ago, I wrote about speaking to someone who had taken a course in bilingualism. She said that it could actually be best for both parents in bilingual homes to speak both languages to their children, rather than taking the traditional approach of having each parent speak one language.

However, I eventually asked for more information about this theory and after reading through a stack of academic articles on bilingualism didn’t see anything direct or convincing about it. So we switched to the traditional approach- I speak English to M, and E speaks French.

We both slip up sometimes- I find it almost impossible to speak English in completely French settings, and E finds the same in English settings. But we do our best.

And E’s parents speak Italian to her… except when they forget and slip into English or French. Ok, so none of us are perfect. But we’re trying. And the important thing, I think, is that my little one is hearing two different languages on a daily basis and three on at least a weekly basis. I’m very curious about how this is shaping her perception of the world around her.

Last week I was invited to an event and brought M with me. Most people there were Latin American, and there was more Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese being spoken than French or English. Everyone wanted to see M- she got passed from person to person, and was spoken to in rapid Spanish and Portuguese all evening long. She didn’t seem surprised about it, and reacted to the people talking to her in the same way she reacts to anyone else. It made me wonder: what is going on in her little head? At this age is facial expression and intonation more important than actual words? Are Spanish and Portuguese similar enough to Italian that she actually can understand a little bit? Or is she just so used to hearing different languages that it’s no surprise that a few more might exist, too?

M is 13 months old now, and babbles incessantly, but she doesn’t speak many real words (that we can understand, anyway). I can’t wait until she starts talking, mostly because I’m curious about which language will come out. Will she automatically speak English to me and French to E? Or will she mix everything all up? Remember some words in one language and others in another?

I’m happy that M will know more than one language for the benefits to her brain explained in the article mentioned above (what mother doesn’t want her child to be creative, intelligent and environmentally aware?!). But also I’m happy that she’ll have a window into different cultures, different ways of seeing the world, different ways of structuring information. One of the benefits of ‘multicultural motherhood’ is the ability to give this gift to our children.

3 Responses to “Benefits of Being Bilingual”

  1. jmlindy422 May 10, 2012 at 1:58 am #

    My family is not bilingual, but my son had a Mexican nanny for the first seven years of his life. She spoke only Spanish to him and, frankly, spent more time with him than me. His first words were in Spanish (he pronounced “agua” as “ah-bwah”…so cute!) and responded best to some directions if they were in Spanish. Now, he’s 16 and taking Chinese, which I’ve heard he speaks very well. He won’t demonstrate at home even though his sister is Chinese.

  2. natasha devalia May 10, 2012 at 2:31 pm #

    Maro,
    Thanks for the interesting post. Montreal is so interesting that way! We took the traditional way- maher speaks french and I speak english. Now they instinctively speak to me in english, and to maher in french. They even translate words for us if they try to explain the same thing to each one of us. It’s not perfect of course- rahul mixes up both languaes a lot these days. I suppose the important thing for them is to express their thoughts as quickly as possible,

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. How Do We Value French as a Language? | Teachers Outside the Box - May 14, 2012

    […] Benefits of Being Bilingual (multiculturalmothering.com) […]

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