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AN ADVANTAGE: It helps them to switch from one set of complex rules to another
"HOWEVER a word is learned," says cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, "it must leave some trace in the brain."
Sometimes we are concerned about the capacity of the brain itself and how the intricate networking of neurons may lead to cross-wiring and confusion. This is one of the concerns about teaching a child more languages than we think they can handle. Why make them learn another when they have yet to master one?
Ask any parent of any bilingual child and they'll tell you something else: that the child's ability to switch from one language to another is quite amazing. Though there are moments too when the worlds collide as our daughter once told us in all earnestness, "I have mandied" as she emerged from the bathroom.
But as we have seen so often in this column, words do not just give you meaning but they shape your brain, and recent research into what bilingualism does to a child's -- or indeed to an adult's brain -- has brought some interesting results.
But first let us look at the word itself. Where does meaning lie? In the world or in the head? Pinker says that when we learn a word we must store a sense of the word in the head. We cannot know all the cats in the world but we have an idea of what a cat is. Also many words that we know do not have any referents in the world at all, a unicorn say, or a hantu jembalang, which you may have seen but which I have never met one on the road.
So learning a language is far more complicated than just the acquisition of words. It involves an even deeper thought process which you will recognise when you are learning a language. You see the word makan and you pause to think and then you say, ah, that's food. But what you are waiting for is that eureka moment when you see a word and the meaning registers at once in your head and you continue reading the passage, absorbing its meaning without having to pause to consider the meaning of each word.
A bilingual child has to learn this as well as to distinguish them as between languages. In doing this, the child's learning goes beyond the naming of objects, the arbitrariness of which would not have escaped his notice. One language says this while the other says that. And then what? The child learns at a very early stage to deal with a level of abstraction, says Ellen Bialystok, professor of psychology at York University in Toronto as quoted in an article in the Los Angeles Times.
Having two languages in the head should lead to confusion because the two would be active all the time but the child learns to suppress, using one instead of the other depending on the context. More than that, the child learns to switch from one set of very complex rules to another.
A bilingual child needs to attend to one set of labels and ignore equally meaningful labels from the other language, say Bialystok and Michelle M Martin in a paper written for the Developmental Science Journal (2004). They say that bilingual children develop better control over attention more efficiently than monolingual children.
In other words, bilingual children learn very early to ignore distractions in their tasks. Other studies by other people also show that bilingual children are better at multitasking.
Children struggle harder than adults in language learning because they have a lot more to learn than adults about how the world works. But in doing so they probably become more efficient than adults if I may hazard an informed guess. In doing that they also build their mental muscles which again bring dividends in other areas of life.
It makes them smarter says a recent article in the New York Times. Bilingualism forces the brain to resolve internal conflicts and this gives the child better cognitive powers.
“The collective evidence from a number of such studies suggests that the bilingual experience improves the brain’s so-called executive function — a command system that directs the attention processes that we use for planning, solving problems and performing various other mentally demanding tasks.
These processes include ignoring distractions to stay focused, switching attention wilfully from one thing to another and holding information in mind — like remembering a sequence of directions while driving,” the article says.
The Stroop test is often used by neuroscientists to see how we react to confusing situations. You have probably seen it at work. The word “green” written in green ink, and then “black” in black ink. You identify them very quickly — green and black. And then “blue” pops up in red ink, and “white” in brown. That takes a bit more time but bilinguals tend to be better at that.
Bilinguals learn to prioritise in this confusing world and they sift what’s a distraction and what’s not. You need that when driving in a busy street or when a situation is complex.