The Magic of Multilingualism

According to psychologists, learning more than one language has significant cognitive benefits and that the full extent of these benefits can only be acquired by children.

In a country that is home to 6 of the top 10 most polluted cities in the world, where the unemployment rate is over 30%, and where the majority of the population lives in abject poverty, allow me to try and convince you why raising your children in India is a good idea.   

Let me give you the example of my young cousin. He was born in Mumbai, to a mother whose first language is Gujarati, and a father whose first language is Marathi. He speaks with his friends in Hindi and goes to an English medium school. He turned 6 a few weeks ago and has already managed to become fluent in four languages,  which is quite impressive when you consider the fact that this kid believes that he can move things with his mind, if he thinks hard enough. This sort of situation is not uncommon for children growing up in India, where they are immersed in a milieu where they are exposed to multiple languages such as English (language of education), the local language of the state, and their mother tongue from a very young age. There is evidence that suggests multilingualism can have a positive impact on your life, and India is home to over 454 living languages that you can choose to expose your child to.

Being able to speak more than one language has certain benefits. First, and probably the most obvious advantage might be that you can communicate with an entire group of people who speak a language common to you. Until we invent or discover something like the Babel fish, we’ll have to stick to actually learning different languages. Second, there are economic benefits. Orhan Agirdag, a sociologist from Ghent University in Belgium, has found that, in the US, bilinguals earned $3000 more per year compared to monolinguals. If you are from the west and are willing to raise your child in India, there is money to be made if your kid becomes a fluent Hindi speaker. Bollywood’s fascination with colonial-era storylines means that by the time your child matures into an adult, all the ‘evil British officer #3’  type roles will probably be his for the taking. The third and possibly the most life-altering are the cognitive ones. This blog post will focus on the potential cognitive changes that may be brought about by multilingualism and examine why the time of exposure to the second language may be important.

In the first half of the 20th century, the common position held by most researchers in the field was that multilingualism was actually detrimental to a child’s development. However, later research suggested otherwise. Elizabeth Peal and Wallace Lambert, the authors of the first study to find an enhanced cognitive performance in bilingual children, reported that ‘Intellectually, [the bilingual child’s] experience with two language systems seems to have left him with a mental flexibility, a superiority in concept formation, a more diversified set of mental abilities’. Learning two languages at an early age did not stunt the child’s linguistic and cognitive development, but actually presented significant advantages to multilingual kids over their monolingual peers. Several studies reported that multilingual children developed an enhanced executive function (a set of cognitive processes that are necessary for the cognitive control of behavior). These include basic cognitive processes such as attentional control (i.e., an individual's capacity to choose what they pay attention to and what they ignore), cognitive inhibition ( ability to ignore stimuli that are irrelevant to the task at hand), working memory, and cognitive flexibility (i.e., the mental ability to switch between thinking about two different concepts, and to think about multiple concepts simultaneously). One of the explanations is that this develops as a result of multilingual children having to repeatedly focus on a relevant language while inhibiting the non-relevant language or switching between the two languages in different linguistic situations. One study even found that bilinguals out-performed monolinguals on various measures of creativity. According to researchers, an enhanced executive function is crucial to academic success in children, which in turn is a significant predictor of their long-term well being.

Considering all these benefits, some may ask what the most appropriate time to learn a second language is. Language development is a process that begins right from the moment we are born. In 1971, Peter Aimas, a psychologist from Brown University detected that infants as young as one month possessed the ability to categorically perceive different speech sounds: /p/ and /b/. While there is no monolithic explanatory theory on how language acquisition occurs, there is a general consensus about the stages of development that children go through. Researchers have found that there is a sensitive period (from birth to the age of six months) of language acquisition, where infants are capable of learning any language in the world. This is because until they are six months old, the infants are capable of differentiating between the phonetic sounds of all languages. After they cross this age, they start to lose this ability and begin to only recognise sounds of the language being spoken around them. Some researchers, like the neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield, suggest that the critical period is from birth to nine years of age while others suggest that the best time to learn a language is up until puberty. The time frame may differ, but the general consensus is that early language acquisition leads to a greater chance of achieving native-like fluency that is rarely achieved when the language is learned during adulthood.

At the time of birth, the brain is incredibly immature and its development through the early years is greatly shaped and modified through experience. It’s an organ that responds to stimuli and adapts accordingly. This process, often referred to as brain plasticity or neuroplasticity, is most active during childhood and while it doesn’t stop during adulthood, it occurs at a reduced rate as one grows older.  So while it is generally agreed that it is easier to learn different languages during this period, there has been debate on whether an early age of acquisition of a second language leads to greater benefits. 

A group of researchers from Ghent University in Belgium found that to adapt to the extreme language control required by multilinguals, the brain undergoes structural changes in certain control-related brain networks. For example, bilinguals have been seen to have an increased density of grey matter in the left inferior parietal cortex of the brain. There is evidence to suggest that the density is affected by the proficiency in the second language and the age it is acquired at. The density in this region increases with second language proficiency and is negatively correlated with the age of acquisition. Early bilinguals were observed to have greater grey matter density compared to late bilinguals.

There is evidence to suggest that early acquisition of a second language influences the extent of structural changes in the brain, but does age of acquisition influence the scope of cognitive benefits obtained? Stephanie Carlson and Andrew Meltzoff, psychologists from the University of Washington, propose that early and intense exposure to the second language is needed to acquire the full extent of executive functions improvements mentioned above. Their stance was supported by Ellen Bialystok’s findings that language experiences can influence further development of frontal lobe functions, such as inhibition and the control of attention. Researchers from the University of Kansas studying attentional control in early and later bilingual children found evidence supporting this claim. Spanish-English children, who had learned both languages before the age of 3, had the fastest reaction time on the Attention Network Test compared to monolingual children and Spanish-English children who had learned English (the second language) after the age of 3. No significant difference was found in the reaction times of monolingual and late bilingual children, demonstrating that early second language acquisition can significantly influence the extent to which executive control develops.  

If you’ve reached this far into the post, I am sure that you must have already started packing your bags for your big move to India. Hold on. Don’t trust everything you read on the internet. There are multiple studies that indicate the benefits of multilingualism but more recently, the validity of their work has been questioned. Drama pervades everything, from sport to politics to academia. Ed Young from the Atlantic has catalogued the intense fight between the two camps in academia that disagree about the benefits of multilingualism.

While there is evidence for structural differences between multilingual and bilingual brains, there are some questions over whether it indicates superiority. The studies mentioned above have shown the existence of an enhanced executive function in bilinguals, but these findings have not yet been replicated across different cultures yet. For more definitive proof, research should be conducted cross-culturally while taking into account factors that may confound results, such as socioeconomic status, education level and cultural background.

However, with improved brain scanning technologies being developed, it is only a matter of time until researchers find more conclusive evidence on the subject. Until then, you might as well raise your kids here and let them learn a new language. They’ll develop enhanced cognitive skills (possibly), have greater grey matter density, increase their earning potential, and have greater cultural awareness. What is the worst that could happen? Sure, living in Indian cities might increase the risk of them getting lung cancer at some point in their life but other than that, what is the worst that could happen?

Siddharth Solanki