Another language please

Cuantos idiomas has escuchado en tu vida? If you understood the previous question, then give me a moment to try and figure you out: you’re either someone who was raised in a multi-language household, or you received your foreign language credits in Spanish. Even if you don’t fully understand the question, the fact that you are able to understand a few words shows that another language has had positive effects on your mind and its cognitive abilities. However, those of you who have acquired more than one language early in life have the upper hand on those who have recently learned a second language through a class or instructional audio CD.

Those of you who have acquired more than one language early in life have the upper hand above those who have recently learned a second language through classes or only have experience with one language. Dr. Ann Eisenberg, who teaches Psychology of Language points out that “most research has been focused on children who are balanced bilinguals or have learned a second language early in life.” These children have an earlier and more complete understanding of language concepts compared to children who are monolingual.

Eisenberg cites the research executed of Ellen Bialystok, at York University in Toronto. Monolingual (speaking only one language) and bilingual 5- and 6-year-olds were asked to determine if the sentence “Apples grow on noses.” was grammatically correct.

Eisenberg points out that “those children who were monolingual can tell you that the previous statement is silly, but they cannot tell you if it is grammatically correct, whereas a kid who is bilingual is much more likely to tell you that it is grammatically correct, but it is a silly sentence.” Bilingual children are more likely to attend to concepts of language at an earlier stage of life compared to their monolingual peers.

Another advantage to being multilingual deals with how the mind mediates using more than one language. Through what is known in cognitive psychology as the executive control system.

The mind is a general manager, and its job is to keep an individual focused on what information is applicable, Eisenberg explains that “being able to use this executive system to switch between languages more causes bilinguals to be a little bit better at multi-tasking between other activities.”

She then emphasizes that “this difference in multi-tasking is not a great difference; most people are not good at multi-tasking.”

Two groups of people tend to have the greatest cognitive differences in terms of bilingual individuals; younger children, and older people. Eisenberg explains that “older people who tend to be bilingual tend to be better at dealing with distractions.” Eisenberg refers to the work of Bialystok, when she says “it has recently been noted that there are fewer cases of Alzheimer’s disease and a later age of onset for individuals who are bilingual.” Bilingual individuals are using their cognitive abilities more to exercise their brains.

If you were not raised speaking more than one language, and are part of the group that has recently taken up a language as part of school curriculum, there are advantages for you as well.. Eisenberg states, “Those who take one or two semesters of another language primarily develop a richer understanding of their own language—specifically more things about their own grammar.” This education improves what is known as an individual’s meta-linguistic level, “which is a person’s ability to understand language itself and to talk about and reflect on what you do with language,” explains Eisenberg.

There is also evidence that the more students study a foreign language the more of an “edge” they may have on their peers. Students studying a foreign language in high school perform better on the verbal and reading sections of the SAT exam than do monolingual students. This evidence could also be applied to the verbal and reading comprehension sections on exams such as the GRE, LSAT or MCAT, exams used in graduate school admissions. A possible explanation could be due to “possibly the kind of person who chooses to study a foreign language, are also people who are more likely to apply themselves to something” says Eisenberg.

Other than Eisenberg’s Psychology of Language course, linguistic information can be found through UTSA’s bilingual/bicultural department. This department offers a Language, Culture and Society course as well as a Language Development in Bilingual course. UTSA also offers courses in many different languages including Japanese, Greek, Russian, Italian and French.