On the Benefits of Knowing More Than One Language

What we ought to do is to shed our blinkers and to learn as many of the languages that we are heir to as we can, and not only because of globalization. For there is great joy to be had from ‘learning the lyricism and the magic of another language…’

They seem so obvious that it is almost ridiculous to elaborate on them in a country such as ours. But we all know that there are certain ingrained prejudices and antagonisms about what are known as the oriental languages amongst certain people in our vaunted rainbow country, and here comes evidence that give a slap in the face of the holders of such obscurantist biases.

A couple of things have led me to realise – and appreciate – how lucky many of us are in Mauritius to be multilingual. At the very minimum, those who have had schooling know at least three languages: English, French and Creole, in which we have acquired skills practically seamlessly. That we are able to read, write and talk in the two major international languages – English and French – is indeed a very great boon and advantage to us individually, and to the country economically and geopolitically, as we are able to be part of groupings such as La Francophonie and the Commonwealth. Of course some, or perhaps many of us may carp about the level and quality of written and spoken English and French, but the fact remains that we are fairly solidly grounded in these two international languages.

A couple of days ago I was standing in Cathedral Square in Port Louis in the company of two friends. One of them has had a long international career as a scientist. Along came these two guys who were looking for directions – and spoke in Bengali: they did not know English at all. And here was this friend, whose knowledge of Bengali is fresher that mine, giving them the required instructions in their language – and of course they were not only relieved but quite surprised. Just goes to show…

As luck would have it, that same afternoon in Curepipe I picked up a TIME magazine, and found that it carried an article about language and the brain, ‘The power of the bilingual brain’, which presents the latest research which ‘shows that learning a second language can train your brain in other ways.’

As I went through it avidly, I could not help thinking how wonderful indeed is science. By its explorations and discoveries in all fields of human endeavour, through the knowledge it continuously builds up it turns many mysteries into commonplace matters, and helps to debunk several tightly-held – especially by the religious orthodoxies – myths as well as throws out or modifies its own theories or widely-held postulates. Science and science-based professionals can give several examples of such turnarounds in their own areas of interest or specialization. One would recall that the great Einstein had said that no theory is ever final. Only one new, proven fact can be enough to turn a theory on its head and make scientists start all over a gain.

It is very exciting indeed to keep abreast of some at least of the latest advances as they happen. One item of such news that made headlines last week was the discovery that scientists had made a discovery that allowed them to ‘switch off’ a gene that is responsible for Down’s syndrome. It is a condition in which the subject is born with mongoloid features and shows a varying degree of mental handicap, sometimes accompanied by physical handicap too. At one point in the medical termination of pregnancy debate in serious medical, scientific and ethical circles worldwide, the possibility of carrying out a termination if a prenatal diagnosis of Down’s were made became the subject of much debate. One can imagine the relief that this discovery will bring to potentially affected parents — and all because dedicated scientists are beavering away in their labs and other workplaces in the field.

Another thought that came to my mind is captured in the word ‘seamlessly’ above; this is in comparison to the expense and effort being put in by certain educational institutions in America to make the children there learn a second language, e.g. Mandarin. Here in Mauritius – it is all there for us to just pick up through a normal process, that of our free educational system which gives us the opportunity to learn not one, or two, or three but even more languages. Contrary to the widespread prejudice and ignorance that exposing children to more than one language at school can be inimical to them, the evidence is that ‘when it comes to language, there’s no such thing as starting too early.’ In fact, ‘it turns out the brain can be bilingual even before birth’, as demonstrated by psychological tests concluding that three-day old babies show response to the bilingual sounds of their mothers in the same way as they did to the sounds of the monolingual mothers acting as controls.

Besides, it has been shown by specialized imaging techniques that the brains of people who are bi- or multilingual are different in the areas connected with spatial reasoning or with cognition. And those differences ‘are all for the better.’ Because other studies have shown ‘multilingual people are better at reasoning, at multitasking, at grasping and reconciling conflicting ideas.’ Further, in such people there is a delay of 4-5 years in the onset of such conditions as dementia and Alzheimer’s.

Unconsciously, therefore, we have acquired a comparative linguistic advantage that must surely go some way in explaining our relative success despite our insularity and geographical isolation, being a tiny dot in the Indian Ocean, and a microscopic one on the world map. When we look at one with friends abroad, we have to use a hand lens to point to where we hail from. “Do you have place to walk there? Do you have an airport there? How did you get from there to here, hey?’

What we ought to do is to shed our blinkers and to learn as many of the languages that we are heir to as we can, and not only because of globalization. For there is great joy to be had from ‘learning the lyricism and the magic of another language…’ And the joy is multiplied manifold if you learn it from a loved one of the opposite sex. And the younger you are the better where this is concerned, ’cos you share much more than language learning. Go on, try it out!

* Published in print edition on 27 July  2013

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