welcome to the edge

Bilingual or demented, that is the question

Multilingualism series 3

by Anthony Fornaro

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Lately I have been wondering if my language skills are slowly and irremediably shrinking. Am I turning goofy? No, I am not. I am just multilingual. Apparently, the ability to speak more than one language might, somehow, affect an individual’s cognitive capacity and result in poor language proficiency, and this could even lead to academic failure. Or at least so it was thought.

To dispel this myth, one of the most influent researchers in the field Bialystok Ellen tells us that being bilingual helps the brain enhancing executive processing and delays age-related declines such as dementia. But I started questioning myself about my language skills when I realised that jumping from one language to the other I quite often mix up rules, words and structures. But what made me wonder the most is the fact that since I started speaking a second language, I encounter many snags in using specific, and sometimes more refined, words in my own native language! As if I am losing some particular knowledge I used to use before.

Then, a few days ago, I found myself reading this reassuring article where it is proposed and explained that thoughts and language follow and develop on two different paths. Even though these two are inextricably related, the relation is merely intersected. To put it more simply, a bilingual individual does not lose knowledge in one or the other language to make ‘room’ to new language skills but simply changes the way they use the language in order to think about information or verbal thought. For instance, as every language is different from others for vocabulary, contexts and mental processes (grammar rules, structures, etc.) a bilingual individual would start thinking and processing information in more than one way.

These findings are strictly related to the Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) and Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills (BICS) concepts developed by Jim Cummins. These make the difference between the language proficiency acquired through every day social/conversational interaction and personal experience and the academic knowledge such as writing and reading abilities and words knowledge. Of course, it is easy to confuse BICS and CALP. In fact, taking into account my experience it would be easy to say that I am a fluent and confident English speaker but, when it comes to official writings or words knowledge you would find that there used to be a considerable gap between my conversational language and my academic one. To fill this gap patience and time were required and in fact for children of 11 years old it requires up to 7 years to develop a CALP whereas can take up to 2 years to be conversationally fluent.

Looking at the findings regarding bilingual proficiency it would be easy to say that the academic success of bilingual pupils is directly related to their language proficiency. But what if other factors come in? The answer to this question has been given to 40 teachers in South Africa who were wondering what would have been the best approach to Learners with Limited Proficiency (LLP). They agreed that the main influencing factors are the large number of students in class, the pre-school exposure to English, the socio-economic differences and the family environment. The last two sometimes play an important role especially when the student is not able to become a literate even in his own language delaying the mastery of the second language. In support of this, Cummins individuated a link between two languages where all the idea and concepts a pupil absorb in one language are transferred to the second one.

Being a bilingual is not so bad in the end. Indeed, you need to be determined and open minded if you want to be a fluent and charming orator in your favourite second language. You should also consider that BICS is partially easy to achieve but CALP will challenge your patience. And if you start messing up with words and structures do not worry you are not turning mad; it is just your language and your thoughts that are having a little quarrel! Looking at the brightside, senile dementia will be slightly further away on the horizon for you.

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