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The Benefits of Speaking More than One Language

By Rafael Navajas, Middle Years Programme/Diploma Programme Spanish teacher at SCIS Hongqiao

Plurilingualism is the ability to use languages for the purposes of communication and to take part in intercultural interaction, where a person, viewed as a social agent, has a proficiency of varying degrees, in several languages, and experience of several cultures. (Council of Europe, 2001: 168) 

The study of language acquisition has always been a controversial field within Linguistics due to the difficulty in testing the different theories and proposals of scholars. This has led to the creation and consolidation of numerous myths in the acquisition of the second language and its impact on the mother tongue and on our cognitive development in general. 

A myth in the field of linguistics, as pointed out by Grosjean (2010), is that to be considered bilingual, one needs a perfect knowledge of the second language (L2), comparable to the mother tongue (L1). Part of this myth is due to what Cenoz calls the Monolingual Bias, that is, the competence in languages ​​is measured from the atomistic perspective of monolingualism, without considering the associations and connections that are created in the multilingual brain.  

Thanks to the advances made in neuroscience, today, we know a little better how our brain works, the areas activated according to what language we use, and when it was acquired. We understand that languages don’t act separately, and we constantly shift and use them indistinctly as resources to communicate. 

One of the significant concerns when we learn a new language is what is commonly called “accent”, that is, the phonetic, rhythmic, and melodic features that help us determine the dialectal variation that we speak of a specific language. Today, it is accepted that the age of acquisition, or age at which we typically acquire a word, influences the repertoire of phonetic units that our brain is capable of recognizing and reproducing and that this window closes very early, at around one year of age, although there are other elements such as social interactions that help to extend this period. However, the ability to achieve a degree of proficiency in a language is not limited by age, even if influenced by it. (Kuhl, 2003) 

Various studies and experiments, in language acquisition, music, and also sports, have shown that people who have learned later can achieve a skill equal to those who learned it in earlier stages: the difference resides in the cerebral processes. Early learning in life involves more sensorimotor types of processing, whereas the second language learner who acquired later in life has to invoke other brain mechanisms beyond their native language brain mechanisms in order to resolve the difference between sounds in the second language. Simplifying a lot, this means that words learned at an early age are associated with sounds, while later, they will be associated with previously learned words. 

In short, it is never too late to learn a language; simply, the brain processes that occur when we do it vary according to the learner and their circumstances. It is the teacher's duty to know how to identify these peculiarities and adapt the learning techniques and expectations to the student's needs in order, ultimately, to promote and facilitate the acquisition of an additional language. The advantages of multilingualism are more evident today in this globalized world and are supported by the scientific literature: 

- More linguistic resources than a monolingual (Block, 2007) 

- Adaptive use of language (Cenoz, 2013) 

- Ease of learning another additional language (Cenoz, 2009) 

The vast majority of the members of our community at SCIS are multilingual, so don't hesitate to go out and develop your superpower, either to artistically explore new horizons like Samuel Beckett, who despite being English his native language wrote his great works in French because, according to him, it forced him to get rid of artifice and to focus on the message and the economy of language; or simply to enjoy the pleasure of being able to read a poem in Mandarin, sing a song in Spanish and chat with your friends in English. (Mitgang, 1981) 

  • Block, David. "Bilingualism: Four assumptions and four responses." International Journal of Innovation in Language Learning and Teaching 1.1 (2007): 66-82. 
  • Cenoz, Jasone. "Defining multilingualism." Annual Review of Applied Linguistics 33 (2013): 3-18. 
  • Cenoz, Jasone. Towards multilingual education. Multilingual Matters, 2009. 
  • Council of Europe. Council for Cultural Co-operation. Education Committee. Modern Languages Division. Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: learning, teaching, assessment. Cambridge University Press, 2001. 
  • Daller, H. E. L. M. U. T. "El desarrollo del bilingüismo: aspectos educacionales." Revista de educación 326 (2001): 25-35. 
  • Grosjean, F. Bilingual: life and reality. Cambridge: Harvard Univ., 2010 
  • Hernandez, Arturo E et al. “Age of acquisition in sport: starting early matters.” The American journal of psychology vol. 124,3 (2011): 253-60 
  • Kuhl, Patricia K., Feng-Ming Tsao, and Huei-Mei Liu. "Foreign-language experience in infancy: Effects of short-term exposure and social interaction on phonetic learning." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 100.15 (2003): 9096-9101. 
  • Mitgang, Herbert. "Book Ends; BECKETT IN PARIS; PARIS". The New York Times, 25 Jan. 1981, Section 7, p. 35 https://www.nytimes.com/1981/01/25/books/book-ends-beckett-in-paris-paris.html 

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  • language acquisition

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