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Is Bilingualism Really an Advantage?
Thread poster: Tom in London

Tom in London
United Kingdom
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Jan 23, 2015

Just came across this article in the "New Yorker".

http://www.newyorker.com/science/maria-konnikova/bilingual-advantage-aging-brain?intcid=mod-most-popular

Is Bilingualism Really an Advantage? asks its Author, who then goes on to describe what is, to my mind, a rather silly test to ascertain whether a bilingual person has a merely functional/performative advantage.

She ends by alluding to bilingualism’s "real benefits" - but doesn't go into what these are (obviously the advantages of being bilingual are not that you perform certain tasks more quickly or that it keeps dementia at bay, but are cultural; being bilingual enriches your life in a comprehensive way).

Other Prozians may find the article interesting - particularly because of the weblinks.

[Edited at 2015-01-23 14:59 GMT]


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Nicole Coesel  Identity Verified
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Link Jan 23, 2015

Hi Tom,

Would you mind sharing the link with us?



Nicole.


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Tom in London
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Silly me Jan 23, 2015

Nicole Coesel wrote:

Hi Tom,

Would you mind sharing the link with us?



Nicole.


Oops ! Silly me. Corrected.


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Samuel Murray  Identity Verified
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Definition of "bilingual" Jan 23, 2015

Tom in London wrote:
Is Bilingualism Really an Advantage? asks its Author,...


The author's test case is a woman who spoke two languages "from the age of eleven", who used the language of her resident country at home, and "immersed herself in English" at school. She considers that person to be "bilingual", but I'm sorry... that's not "bilingual" in the classic sense of having one and a half native languages, and therefore we should not be surprised if that woman does not exhibit the advantages of real bilinguals.



[Edited at 2015-01-23 16:06 GMT]


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Alistair Gainey  Identity Verified
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Read it again, Sam Jan 23, 2015

Samuel Murray wrote:

Tom in London wrote:
Is Bilingualism Really an Advantage? asks its Author,...


The author's test case is a woman who spoke two languages "from the age of eleven", who used the language of her resident country at home, and "immersed herself in English" at school. She considers that person to be "bilingual", but I'm sorry... that's not "bilingual" in the classic sense of having one and a half native languages, and therefore we should not be surprised if that woman does not exhibit the advantages of real bilinguals.



[Edited at 2015-01-23 16:06 GMT]


It isn't, true, but the article isn't about whether she's bilingual: it's about her research.


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LilianNekipelov  Identity Verified
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This is absolutely bilingual Jan 24, 2015

Samuel Murray wrote:

Tom in London wrote:
Is Bilingualism Really an Advantage? asks its Author,...


The author's test case is a woman who spoke two languages "from the age of eleven", who used the language of her resident country at home, and "immersed herself in English" at school. She considers that person to be "bilingual", but I'm sorry... that's not "bilingual" in the classic sense of having one and a half native languages, and therefore we should not be surprised if that woman does not exhibit the advantages of real bilinguals.



[Edited at 2015-01-23 16:06 GMT]

If a person can use two languages, almost interchangeably, regardless even of some slight accent in one or both, this is bilingualism. There is nothing more to bilingualism-- than that.

I agree with whoever said that the advantages are mostly cultural. The rest is questionable and of less importance.


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Samuel Murray  Identity Verified
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Native bilingualism versus non-native bilingualism Jan 24, 2015

LilianNekipelov wrote:
Samuel Murray wrote:
That's not "bilingual" in the classic sense of having one and a half native languages, and therefore we should not be surprised if that woman does not exhibit the advantages of real bilinguals.

If a person can use two languages, almost interchangeably, regardless even of some slight accent in one or both, this is bilingualism. There is nothing more to bilingualism-- than that.


It depends on your definition, I suppose. Remember, the article deals with a presumed innate ability, which implies a mind that is programmed at an early age. Simply learning an additional language much later in life will not result in the same kind of mental agility that a bi-native speaker would presumably have.


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Simone Catania  Identity Verified
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Bilinguism frees your mind Jan 24, 2015

Hi everyone and thank you Tom for sharing this article.

What the author Maria Konnikova writes is strictly related to new neuroscientific discoveries. Twenty years ago the idea was that early bilinguism was a disadvantage because bilingual children start to speak with some delay compared to monolinguals. The reason is simple: they need more time to organise the linguistic information for the two languages. Nowadays it has been shown that although bilinguals have a delay in language production, they will have future advantages in memory, learning, attention and for their cognitive well-being.

Furthermore, the author starts her article saying that with two languages we see a bigger world. This relates to language relativity or the so called Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. This is a very important topic for me at the moment because I am preparing my speech for the International Conference on Bilinguism at the University of Malta in March. Starting for the fact that it has been argued bilinguism can effects concepts and how speakers classify reality taking as case study the grammatical gender I support the idea bilinguism might eliminate the bias effecting conceptualization. This is why learning and speaking more languages free people from the cage created by the first language.

Is there anyone of you taking part at the Conference? I would like to see you there!


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Simone Catania  Identity Verified
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Definition of bilinguism in language science Jan 24, 2015

Samuel Murray wrote:

Tom in London wrote:
Is Bilingualism Really an Advantage? asks its Author,...


The author's test case is a woman who spoke two languages "from the age of eleven", who used the language of her resident country at home, and "immersed herself in English" at school. She considers that person to be "bilingual", but I'm sorry... that's not "bilingual" in the classic sense of having one and a half native languages, and therefore we should not be surprised if that woman does not exhibit the advantages of real bilinguals.



[Edited at 2015-01-23 16:06 GMT]


Hi Tom and Samuel,

in language science (linguistics, psycholinguistics, neurolinguistics) bilinguism is the ability of speaking more than one language. Then according the onset of language acquisition you can divide early and late bilinguism.

This is different, since translators and interpreters use the word 'bilingual' only for someone who is 'early bilingual'


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Henry Hinds  Identity Verified
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Clearly an Advantage Jan 24, 2015

When you consider how being bilingual widens the world in which you operate, it is clearly an advantage.

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Michele Fauble  Identity Verified
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Multilingualism Jan 24, 2015

Henry Hinds wrote:

When you consider how being bilingual widens the world in which you operate, it is clearly an advantage.


And multilingualism widens the world even more.


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Tom in London
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Rat race Jan 24, 2015

I dislike the tone of the original article, which seems to assume that we're all in some kind of rat race, looking for advantages, and that being bilingual, or multilingual, gives you a better position in the competitive nightmare that seems to be the author's view of the world.

Gaining a competitive edge is absolutely **not** the purpose of being bilingual, or multilingual. It may be a secondary effect, but if you set out in life with the sole aim of becoming bilingual as a way of getting one over on your competitors, making more money, or having a successful career, you will fail. Nor should this be the reason for wishing your children to grow up bilingual.

Being bilingual is about much, much more than just making money or getting ahead in the rat race. The author doesn't seem to understand that.

[Edited at 2015-01-24 20:34 GMT]


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Balasubramaniam L.  Identity Verified
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The other side of the coin Jan 25, 2015

Being a bilingual myself (in Hindi and English), I can say that while it certainly helps professionally (I can produce a better translation in my working languages, Hindi and English, than say a translator who knows only one of these languages proficiently), at an individual level, bilingualism can lead to great mental and cultural confusion, and you sometime begin to long for the security and assuredness that a firm grounding in a single language, and the culture and value-system that it entails, affords a person.

Most of our modern languages are several hundred years old and have accumulated huge amounts of literature, folk-lore, customs, traditions, values and ritual elements. An average individual life span of about a hundred years is too short to plumb the full depths of all this. It can easily lead to information overload. A bilingual person will face twice the information overload.

Often, the values inherent in different languages and cultures are mutually incompatible, and a bilingual in such languages will have a hard time reconciling these values, and far from becoming mentally agile as a result of his bilingualism, will run the danger of going schizophrenic or mentally unstable!

I don't think bilingualism is a natural state for human beings and most, if not all, biliguals are the result of accidents of their life. Forcing bilingualism on children for the supposed benefits it produces, can condemn innocent and help-less children to a life of confusion, mental strain, and lack of confidence in themselves.

So beware, enthusiastic, over-eager parents!


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LilianNekipelov  Identity Verified
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here is no innate bilingualism. Jan 25, 2015

Samuel Murray wrote:

LilianNekipelov wrote:
Samuel Murray wrote:
That's not "bilingual" in the classic sense of having one and a half native languages, and therefore we should not be surprised if that woman does not exhibit the advantages of real bilinguals.

If a person can use two languages, almost interchangeably, regardless even of some slight accent in one or both, this is bilingualism. There is nothing more to bilingualism-- than that.


It depends on your definition, I suppose. Remember, the article deals with a presumed innate ability, which implies a mind that is programmed at an early age. Simply learning an additional language much later in life will not result in the same kind of mental agility that a bi-native speaker would presumably have.


Language is something you acquire. This is a serious misconception common among many people who do not deal with language acquisition. I did not mean you here--some laypeople.


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LilianNekipelov  Identity Verified
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Yes, I absolutely agree. Jan 25, 2015

Tom in London wrote:

I dislike the tone of the original article, which seems to assume that we're all in some kind of rat race, looking for advantages, and that being bilingual, or multilingual, gives you a better position in the competitive nightmare that seems to be the author's view of the world.

Gaining a competitive edge is absolutely **not** the purpose of being bilingual, or multilingual. It may be a secondary effect, but if you set out in life with the sole aim of becoming bilingual as a way of getting one over on your competitors, making more money, or having a successful career, you will fail. Nor should this be the reason for wishing your children to grow up bilingual.

Being bilingual is about much, much more than just making money or getting ahead in the rat race. The author doesn't seem to understand that.

[Edited at 2015-01-24 20:34 GMT]


Multilingualism is just something that happens--not anything intended for, or that is to give anyone any type of an advantage. There is a wide range of advantages of multilingualism, but most come naturally-- as opposed to being the aim to strive for.


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