Enlli Thomas is a senior lecturer in Bangor University. Her research looks at language development and bilingualism in school children in Wales.
CONTRARY to popular belief, the majority of the world’s population speaks more than one language. Yet, the terms “bilingual” and “multilingual” remain analogous to “confusion” and “delay”.
Such pessimism is due, in part, to an unfounded belief that the brain evolved to perfect a single system for communication. For those who hold this view, bilingual speakers who do not sound exactly the same as monolingual speakers are often (incorrectly) judged to be less competent, not only in terms of their linguistic skills, but often also in terms of general intelligence.
Bilinguals and monolinguals are different and this difference is by no means a bad thing. But applying monolingual expectations to bilinguals is uninformative, if not unethical.
While we are still to uncover the true capacity of the human brain and how it processes language, one thing is for certain, there is plenty of room for more.
So how does the bilingual brain store and process two languages? Is it the same or different from how it stores and processes one?
The answers to these, and many other questions, are fascinating, and involve a combined understanding of the internal workings of the bilingual mind and of the external factors that influence the type of bilingual a person may be.
Recent studies conducted both internationally and here in Wales are showing that having two languages can impact on the child’s language development, general abilities, and health and wellbeing in ways that are unique to the bilingual learner.
In terms of language abilities, some of our most recent research is looking at the effects of language structure on children’s literacy and self-esteem, with special focus on those who are learning Welsh and English.
Other studies have looked at young German-Welsh bilinguals’ emergent grammars, looking for examples of German influence in their Welsh, and Welsh influence in their German.
Mapping Welsh-English bilinguals’ development of vocabulary, reading and grammar in Welsh and in English has allowed for a better understanding of the impact of learning a second language on children’s development of their first language.
Our results show that learning through the medium of Irish or Welsh at school has no detrimental effects on children’s development of English.
In fact, the act of switching between two languages and of inhibiting the use of one language whilst using the other provides the bilingual brain with a certain level of flexibility that the monolingual brain has to work for in other ways.
This has led bilinguals to demonstrate superior abilities on general cognitive tasks that require certain types of processing – an advantage that translates well into the classroom.
Our studies here in Wales are beginning to show some interesting patterns that contribute to these findings.
Whether this advantage is present across the life-span for all Welsh-English bilinguals is yet to be discovered, but should it lead to the delayed onset of dementia, as demonstrated previously for bilinguals in Canada, the identification of how, when and where this advantage is present is all the more worthwhile.
To contact Enlli please email firstname.lastname@example.org
This article first appeared in the Western Mail‘s Health Wales supplement on 26th November 2012, as part of the Welsh Crucible series of research profiles.