Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Bilingualism benefits the brain

A fascinating article on the Economist's website shows the importance of bilingualism for mental health. No only are native bilinguals better able to focus on mentally demanding tasks, but being bilingual defers the onset of dementia by an average of five years. Note: being able to remember a bit of secondary school Spanish does not count - for the bilingual effect to work, you have to be in a situation where you skip effortlessly from one language to the other on a regular basis. "The effects are weak to nonexistent for those who merely have a passable ability, infrequently used, in a second language", the article says.

Working in a totally bilingual environment, speaking English at home and Polish in the street, this is marvellous news. Good news too for my parents - still mentally as sharp as pins - who spent their working lives talking nothing but English; being immersed in English in the office and in the street while speaking Polish at home has evidently proved valuable for them both.

As I wrote the other day, Poles in general are rapidly improving their English language proficiency - and not only English - Poland has become a mecca for shared services centres for global corporates, because it's so much easier to find German, Russian, Italian or French speakers here than in, say, Bangalore. If you want to get on in life - learn another language - but if you want to live a longer, fuller, life - perfect that language and use it as often as you can. A 50/50 breakdown is ideal. I speak Polish at work (at the expense of my Polish colleagues who speak Polish at work and at home, though who are all able to speak excellent English). So hats off to my English-born colleague Paddy, who is spending all this week speaking nothing but Polish.

Much of the fun of being bilingual resides in those linguistic spaces where on language has a word for something, while the other doesn't - today I spent about ten minutes explaining the word 'fuss' to a student (if you are Polish and are unfamiliar with the word, see this post). When there's a word for which there's no direct translation, the fun starts. 'Cat' = kot, 'wallet' = portfel. But what equals 'fragile', 'reasonable', 'pattern' (as in 'I can see a pattern emerging here...'), 'imposter', 'to fail', 'to bully', 'grumpy', 'underwhelming', for example? The list is long. And were I blogging in Polish, there'd be a similarly long list of Polish words that the English language does not have a direct translation for (brakować, mieć pretensje, kombinować, załatwiać sprawę).

I've been bilingual since the age of three and half, when I started nursery school; armed with the words 'please', 'thank you' and 'toilet', I never experienced any difficulties acquiring English language skills, because my mind was young, and my facial muscles were able to adjust to the strain of extreme English vowel sounds. A huge advantage in life.

Are there any downsides to being bilingual? Until recently, researchers held that a child of above-average intelligence would benefit from being brought up bilingual, while one of below-average intelligence would be held back, confused and handicapped by bilingualism. This is now shown to be untrue - children with two or more languages have lifelong advantages bestowed upon them. Accident of birth in my case, but for my generation (especially those couples who were both British of Polish descent), those who took a conscious decision not to speak Polish to their children as they grew up are now seen as having taken away something that could have been very useful from them.

A personal story about my bilingual upbringing in 1960s West London here. And do click onto the labels 'English language' and 'Polish language' below.

This time last year:
Wine connoisseurs - or wine snobs?

This time four years ago:
Crushed velvet dusk in my City of Dreams II

This time five years ago:
Going North, the quick way

This time six years ago:
Glorious autumn dusk

This time seven years ago:
Last man voting?


AndrzejK said...

Apparently MRI based research has shown that a language learnt before turning 10 or so is stored in the sub concious part of the brain whilst those learnt later require the user to "translate' thoughts formed in their native language.

When I started English primary school the only English I knew was toilet. I did however have the ablility to write down numbers from 1 to 100 which must have impressed the teachers!

As a general principle I believe that language teaching should start in primary schools even at the cost of knowledge in other areas which can be picked up later. For instance as an accountant the extent to which I use any of the maths forced on me at school, (Americans please note that there is an "s" at the end of the abbreviation, is highly limited as I can always find a sad person who can deal with any calculations more complex than adding and subtracting. It is the ability to know where to look for information and how to use it practically which is important. The same does not apply to language which does have to be "embedded" to be of any use.

DC said...

Hey Michael -

Any chance you were walking along the south side of Centralna on Monday at about 10 past 12, outside near the taxis?

Michael Dembinski said...

It sounds like Radio Yerevan -

East side of Centrum on Monday about 10 to 11 (from KFC to office via underpass). At 10 past 12 I was editing text to go onto our website, I see from my computer...

Michael Dembinski said...

@ AndrzejK - very interesting points about language vs maths and how differently we learn it and the need to embed... Worth more googling!

DC said...

Ah, OK. Then there is at least one guy who looks a lot like your pics in town. Now I don't feel bad for being slow to say "hello."

Interesting stuff. I"ve always wondered about the age of learning with respect to how well one can pronounce things in a new language. Anecdotally, it seems like a lot of kids my age with Polish parents could pronounce Polish words reasonably well, even if we didn't speak properly, or even at all. But I learned German in my teens, and even though I am comfortable in conversation (I won't quite say fluent) I know after much trying that I will never be able to pronounce a proper German "R." And the word rührei? Simply impossible for me.