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Longing for Language

Language is an important part of our daily lives and helps us connect and communicate with the people around us. As members of the diaspora, many of us may use several languages but how does that affect us? In this post, we explore the importance and origin of language, the effects of multilingualism, and some tips on learning a new language.

What is language?

Language is a broad term that covers many forms of communication, including words, facial expressions, body posture, movement, and meaningful sounds like clicks and hums. There are around 7,164 spoken languages and around 300 signed languages used around the world today however, around 40% of these languages have less than 1,000 users and are considered endangered. Language helps us connect with each other. In this era of globalisation, language is one of the most important tools we have as it allows us to communicate with people all around the world. In the scientific field, especially, language and translation make it easier to collaborate and share knowledge and resources with our fellow scientists in all corners of the earth. This is particularly useful for tackling global issues such as the climate crisis, or a global pandemic like COVID-19.


All animals communicate in some way. For the majority of animals, their expressions are part of a closed communication system which means that each expression can only mean one thing. For example, when bees dance in a specific pattern to signal danger, that dance will never be interpreted by other bees as anything other than the signal for danger. Humans are a little different. Humans have an open communication system which means that we can create new meanings from existing expressions. An example of this would be the basic smiley face emoji. For some people, using this emoji suggests that they are smiling or happy about something, for others this emoji has sarcastic undertones and actually does not mean that they are happy or smiling. Having an open communication system means that human language is generally considered to be more complex than the language of other animals. Our open communication system is responsible for arguably some of humanity’s best work like double entendres, puns, and memes!


Most animal communication systems are innate which means that they do not have to learn them. There has been some debate in the linguistic community around whether language development in humans is innate or not. Some cognitive and linguistic studies suggest that when humans are born, they are able to ‘understand’ the basic sounds or phonemes of every spoken language. This argument is based largely on famous linguist Noam Chomsky’s theory that all humans are born with ‘universal grammar’ which he believed explained the similarities between different languages (1). As children grow, they lose this ability, and their understanding becomes restricted to the phonemes that make up the dominant language (or languages) that they are exposed to. Other scientists, however, disagree with the theory of universal grammar and some believe that language development is not innate and is actually the result of cognitive and social processes like pattern recognition and joint attention in childhood (2).


A lot of research backs both main theories and elements of both theories can likely be combined to explain language development in humans. Combining these main theories may help explain how humans learn new languages at different stages of our lives. The innate language theory may be the reason behind the popular belief that the best time to learn a language is as a child, and the cognitive and social processes described in the non-innate language theory can help describe how we learn new languages in addition to our native ones as we age.


To be or not to be multilingual

Understanding and speaking in more than one language is known as multilingualism or polylingualism and people who know multiple languages are often referred to as polyglots. You can also understand but not speak a language. This is known as receptive bilingualism or the ‘receptive-expressive gap’ and can be common among children of the diaspora with an immigration status of second generation or higher (3). Some research suggests that multilingualism is associated with higher cognitive ability known as the ‘bilingual advantage’ (4). Research on the effects of multilingualism is often conducted in children and adult multilingualism is not nearly as widely studied; however, some studies do suggest that any effects of childhood multilingualism carry on into adulthood (5). Multilingualism has been linked to increased executive function, memory, creativity, empathy, open-mindedness, and academic performance as well as later onset of dementia (6–9). Although there is a large body of research to back up the claims of a bilingual advantage, there is still a lot of debate around whether or not this advantage actually exists and the mechanisms that cause it.


Nowadays, being multilingual is generally thought to be a positive thing but this was not always the case. In the early 20th century, some studies on the verbal abilities of multilingual children suggested that knowing multiple languages led to ‘mental confusion’ and subsequent cognitive impairments such as language delay (8). Many of these studies, however, were a little flawed. Some studies assessed refugee children, many of whom did not speak any English at all, on their English-speaking skills compared to native English speakers and wrongly attributed their low scores to their multilingualism. Some of these ideas around the disadvantages of multilingualism have persisted today and have been used to explain phenomena like forgetting words in your native language after learning new ones (10).


Personally, I think that knowing multiple languages is one of the coolest and most useful skills to have. There is so much knowledge that people all over the world have to offer and being able to communicate with them means that you now have access to a whole new world of information. There are so many stories being told in books, TV, film, and music in languages other than your native one that you can connect with. When you travel you can communicate better with the local people which can sometimes get you better deals. You can also experience more of the less touristy, local activities and areas without worrying about not being able to understand signs or instructions. My personal favourite benefit of learning multiple languages is the increased ability to understand gossip on public transport!


So, you want to learn a new language?

If you’ve gotten this far, you may be thinking about learning a new language or even re-learning a language you knew when you were a child but forgot as you grew up. Despite what people may say, it is never too late to learn a language. There are many methods that people use to learn a language and there is no real best way to learn. Some people decide to start from the alphabet and work their way up through common sounds to full words, like how babies learn. Some people skip the basics and decide to learn the most common words in their target language so that they can become conversationally fluent. Some people prefer to learn through textbooks or an online course, and some people learn best by going to classes. If you want to learn a new language, you can choose whatever method suits you the best. Whichever method you choose, always try to incorporate speaking or signing into your language practice as well as reading and writing. If you want to use your language learning skills professionally and need to prove your abilities, you can also take a language proficiency test and get a certificate. Heads up though, you have to pay for these official tests, which can often be quite expensive.

There are a lot of resources available online to learn languages. The range of resources may differ depending on the language you want to learn and its popularity amongst other learners. Language learning resources come in many different forms from gamified apps/websites like Duolingo and Lingodeer to language exchange platforms like HelloTalk and Tandem where you can find a language learning buddy and teach each other your native languages. You can also use spaced repetition to learn vocabulary on sites like Memrise. People who prefer auditory learning may enjoy listening to language learning podcasts like Coffee Break or watching content in their target language and using plug-ins like Lingopie to see both your native language and target language subtitles. There are also a number of online courses on platforms like Udemy and Coursera. These structured courses are usually free to learn but you may have to pay to get an optional certificate at the end. As a big advocate for free access to learning, I tend to lean towards free language learning tools (as my 1,119-day Duolingo streak will attest to), but there are also a number of paid methods you can use like paying for a language tutor or class or a self-guided programme like Rosetta Stone or Babbel. If you already have some basic knowledge of your target language, you can also take a free proficiency test (like this one) to assess what you know and decide what level you should start learning at.


Becoming completely fluent in a new language might take a little longer as an adult than it would if you were learning as a child, and you may occasionally struggle to recall words in your native language but (if you couldn’t tell already) I think it’s worth it!


In conclusion, language is such an important part of communicating and connecting with other people and it’s never too late to learn a new one. Learning a language can be daunting and sometimes frustrating but it is a great skill to have, and one that I would definitely recommend.


Learn a new language and show up (and connect with) your friends and family today!


By Esther Ansah, Blog Writer


References

1.          Yang C, Crain S, Berwick RC, Chomsky N, Bolhuis JJ. The growth of language: Universal Grammar, experience, and principles of computation. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2017 Oct 1;81:103–19.

2.        Tomasello M. Language is Not an Instinct.

3.        Gibson TA, Oller DK, Jarmulowicz L, Ethington CA. The receptive–expressive gap in the vocabulary of young second-language learners: Robustness and possible mechanisms*. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition. 2012 Jan;15(1):102–16.

4.          Kroll JF, Mendoza GA. Bilingualism: A Cognitive and Neural View of Dual Language Experience. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Psychology. 2022 Aug 15

5.          Antón E, Carreiras M, Duñabeitia JA. The impact of bilingualism on executive functions and working memory in young adults. PLoS One. 2019 Feb 1;14(2):e0206770.

6.          Monnier C, Boiché J, Armandon P, Baudoin S, Bellocchi S. Is bilingualism associated with better working memory capacity? A meta-analysis. Int J Biling Educ Biling. 2022 Jul 3;25(6):2229–55.

7.          Gunnerud HL, ten Braak D, Reikerås EKL, Donolato E, Melby-Lervåg M. Is bilingualism related to a cognitive advantage in children? A systematic review and meta-analysis. Psychol Bull. 2020;146(12):1059–83.

8.          Antoniou M. The Advantages of Bilingualism Debate. Annu Rev Linguist. 2019 Jan 14; 5(Volume 5, 2019):395–415.

9.          Mueller Gathercole VC, Thomas EM, Jones L, Guasch NV, Young N, Hughes EK. Cognitive effects of bilingualism: digging deeper for the contributions of language dominance, linguistic knowledge, socio-economic status and cognitive abilities. Int J Biling Educ Biling. 2010 Sep;13(5):617–64.

10.       Barbosa PG, Jiang Z, Nicoladis E. The role of working and short-term memory in predicting receptive vocabulary in monolingual and sequential bilingual children. Int J Biling Educ Biling. 2019 Oct 3; 22(7):801–17.

 

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