Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

The Benefits of Multilingualism to the Personal and Professional Development of Residents of the US

Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

The Benefits of Multilingualism to the Personal and Professional Development of Residents of the US

Article excerpt

Although most of the world is multilingual, the use of two or more languages in the United States has historically been marked as a complicating factor rather than a benefit. Attitudes toward languages other than English have been confounded with attitudes toward immigration and cultural diversity, resulting in a wealth of mythology surrounding language learning and language use. The assumption of English as the only language, or the majority language, in the United States has helped promote the belief that acquiring a second language as an adult is an impossible task that can be accomplished successfully only by the few who possess a special talent for language learning. Likewise, although young children appear to be able to acquire multiple languages easily, it has often been assumed that introducing a second language too early during infancy will produce confusion and cause irrevocable damage to the child's language and cognitive development. It has also been suggested that language mixing or language switching among proficient speakers of two or more languages when they converse with others who are similarly proficient is a sign of pathology or incomplete language ability. These and other attitudes toward and views of multilingualism in the United States have affected not only public perceptions, but also those of educators and scientists.

However, accumulating data have shown that the assumptions and attitudes that have been prevalent historically are in fact myths:1 Far from being a complication, research has shown that multilingualism provides benefits to individuals at all points along the lifespan, from the youngest infants and children, to young adults, and to older adults who may be facing cognitive decline (Bialystok, Craik, & Luk, 2012). Young babies are not confused by hearing two or more languages but develop the ability to discriminate among the languages they hear; they are more open to new language learning than their monolingually exposed counterparts (Petitto et al., 2012). Adult learners who are well past early childhood have been shown to be able to acquire sensitivity to the grammar of a second language despite their age (Morgan-Short, Steinhauer, Sanz, & Ullman, 2012). As for language mixing, code-switching is a common feature of bilingual discourse, is rule governed, and reflects a sophisticated cognitive strategy that enables listeners to exploit the features of bilingual speech as speech is produced (Fricke, Kroll, & Dussias, 2016). Taken together, a growing set of research discoveries in the last two decades provides compelling evidence to reverse the older false beliefs about multilingualism. For language scientists, the multilingual speaker is now seen as a model for understanding the way that language experience shapes the mind and the brain (Kroll, Dussias, Bice, & Perrotti, 2015).2

How then does language experience shape the brain? First, studies have shown that the brain has far greater plasticity throughout the lifespan than previously understood. Life experience at all ages has consequences for cognition and for both the structure and function of the brain. As an important aspect of life experience, language use reveals these consequences (Baum & Titone, 2014). Contrary to the view that the brain evolved to speak one language only, the evidence suggests that two or more languages coexist in the same brain networks, each language activating the other even when only one of the languages is in use. One might think that the engagement of all known languages would impose a terrible burden on bilingual and multilingual speakers; however, recent studies demonstrated that while there may be some small disadvantages with respect to speed, those disadvantages are far outweighed by what bilinguals and multilinguals learn about how to control potential competition across the two or more languages. Elsewhere, researchers have described the bilingual as a mental juggler, able to keep both languages in the air, as it were, and to simultaneously be able to use the intended language without making obvious mistakes (Kroll, Dussias, Bogulski, & Valdes-Kroff, 2012). …

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