What Does it Mean To Know a Language?

Polyglot Children Answering Question

Speaking two or more languages it’s not just about being able to watch a movie in Spanish or find your way around any foreign city. What tips the scales here is that a bilingual/multilingual brain not only works but also looks different. Foreign language acquisition is an activity that physically changes the structure of the brain ergo its function. Here’s how:

  • Bilingual/multilingual brains have a higher volume of grey matter, resulting into higher control of tasks and overall consistency
  • They also have a higher capacity of inhibition i.e. the ability to focus entirely on one single task by means of filtering out irrelevant information
  • Bilingual/Multilingual people are better problem solvers because they see twice as many variables where others stick to tunnel “vision”
  • Bilingual people tend to be less emotionally biased and choose a more rational, calmer approach when confronting with problems in their every day lives

Food for thought right? Funnily enough before 1960s bilingualism was an issue to be considered as a drawback to a child’s cognitive development. Experts back then had firm beliefs a second language would do anything but boost cognitive growth.

 Nowadays, there’s a clear distinction between the passive and the active parts of learning a new language. Passive parts being listening and reading skills; active parts, being speaking and writing, i.e. the actual production of language. Going a bit deeper, depending on how we have acquired or learned a second language, psycholinguists would classify us into three types:

  • the compound bilingual (children)
  •  the coordinate bilingual (teenagers)
  • the subordinate bilingual (adults)

Compound bilinguals learn to speak a new language at a very young age developing two linguistic codes simultaneously for one sole concept. In plain English, they have learned to process the world around them through two different languages, or more. Coordinate bilinguals are the exact opposite. They develop two concepts for one single code. Imagine a Spanish high school student who just moved to London and speaks English in school, Spanish at home with his family and both English and Spanish with his friends. Subordinate bilinguals are those who learn a second language by doing one simple thing: translating. They filter the second language through their first language. And it might not go further than that.

Be that as it may, all three types of bilingual people can become fluent in a language. Ones will do this with grammar and syntax while others will immerse themselves in the social and emotional context of the language. Regardless, learning a second language is synonym to understanding better your first language. Paradox or gift? That’s up to you to decide…

Iphigenia Mariou

Educational department

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