The impact on children’s development and adults with dementia of being able to speak more than one language: with Gustavo Perez Firmat, Antonella Sorace and Ellen Bialystok.
The Forum explores whether it make a difference to a child’s development if they speak one language at home and another at school, how the brain is affected by juggling between different languages and what effect being bi-lingual or multilingual has on the way people feel about their identity? Bridget Kendall talks to writer and academic Gustavo Perez Firmat, developmental linguistics academic Antonella Sorace, and cognitive neuroscientist Ellen Bialystok.
Illustration by Shan Pillay
Poet Gustavo Pérez Firmat
I am a different person when speaking in Spanish and in English
Linguistics expert Antonella Sorace
On the effects of learning a second language in childhood
Sixty Second Idea to Improve The World: Womb learning
A pre-natal language belt to give babies a head start at languages
Cognitive neuro-psychologist Ellen Bialystok
On the brain benefits of speaking more than one language
Gustavo Pérez Firmat
Gustavo Pérez Firmat was born in Havana, Cuba, and raised in Miami, Florida. He is currently the David Feinson Professor in the Humanities, Department of Latin American and Iberian Cultures at Columbia University and author of many books of prose and poetry, including Bilingual Blues, The Havana Habit and Next Year in Cuba, a memoir of life at home and in exile. He most recent book: A Cuban in Mayberry is published October 1st 2014. He says that when writing and speaking in two different languages he often asks himself, "in which language am I most truly myself?"
Antonella Sorace is professor of developmental linguistics at Edinburgh University and director of the online information service Bilingualism Matters, which aims to benefit children from speaking more than one language. Her work looks at the effects of bilingualism over a lifespan, on the effects of learning a new language in early and late childhood, as well as the changes that take place in the native language of advanced language speakers. She says that children exposed to different languages become more aware of different cultures, other people and other points of view. But they also tend to be better than monolinguals at ‘multitasking’ and focusing attention, they often are more precocious readers, and generally find it easier to learn other languages.
Ellen Bialystok is distinguished research professor of psychology at York University, Toronto and Associate Scientist at The Rotman Research Institute of the Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care, Toronto.
Her current work looks at the effects on the brain of older people who regularly use two languages. This appears to have an effect on the part of the brain called the Executive Control System (the part of the brain responsible for focus and task management) with particular benefit for people with Alzheimer’s disease. She says that the brain, contrary to popular opinion, does not have an on/off switch when it comes to language and so it has to find a way of dealing with one language when it works in another. This causes hyper-stimulation of the Executive Control System and appears to have the effect of delaying the symptoms of dementia amongst bilingual speakers.
Sixty Second Idea to Improve The World
Antonella Sorace proposes a Pre-natal Language Belt to give babies a head start at learning languages before they’re even born.
Research shows that new-borns who hear more than one language in the womb come into the world with a greater sensitivity to these languages. Babies don’t confuse languages, though: they can keep their different rhythms apart.
Maternity hospitals could give expectant mothers a ‘prenatal language belt’ – a version of existing prenatal music belts. But instead of playing music they would play songs, lullabies and short stories in a language that’s different from their parents. Mothers would wear these belts a certain percentage of time every day and babies would be ‘primed’ for bilingualism even before they’re born.
Photo: Turner/ Getty Images