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February 10, 2003
Multi-linguists are better educated

Yesterday I had one of those trifling yet enjoyable conversations in the Tube that you sometimes have, hardly more than the exchange of a few friendly words. Yet this conversation was laden with, to me, vastly intriguing intellectual baggage.

A family entered the Tube carriage I was in two parents and three boys, very obviously tourists and one of the boys was discussing where they were going to: Paddington. "Do we live in Paddington?" he asked, in a very American accent. "No" I interpolated, in what I hope was a jocular and friendly fashion. "You live in America." In my experience Americans are far happier to be conversed with like this in such places as Tube trains than are we Brits. What they hate is the way we ignore them all the time. But, said Mother, sitting right next to me: "No, actually we live in Austria. I'm an American. My husband is Austrian. And the words "stay" and "live" are the same in German, so my boys are liable to say "live" when what they really mean is "stay". "Ah, I see", said I, smiling again. (I hope I caused no offence.) End of conversation.

I know a number of bi-lingual and in some cases even multi-lingual children, and their parents tell me that this is a definite educational advantage. Bouncing around between different languages seems to stretch the juvenile brain just when it is most able to benefit from such stretching and to be least confused by it, or perhaps I mean least bothered about being confused. When they're older, these multi-linguists can get jobs as quite well-paid translators or interpreters when their friends are only slaving away in fast food emporia. Then they can be multi-lingual members of the international salariat, again very nicely paid, other things being equal.

But there is more to it than this. People who got to multi-lingualism very young have what I can only describe as a philosophical advantage. If you only speak and think in the one language, you are all too liable to confuse things with the mere labels for things. This is "a book", and a book is a book is a book. Well, not quite. "A book" is the label we attach to this particular subdivision (with quite blurry edges) of reality. In other languages, the labels refer to different subdivisions. In some languages there is no word for books that doesn't also include magazines. In some, the word for magazines includes paperbacks but makes no distinction between paperbacks and magazines, and books are only really books if they are hardback books. In some countries where you live and where you happen just now to be living are the same thing, as seems to be the case in Germany. To make that distinction you have to use a word like "home", or some such. Multi-linguists get all this, and they get it at a very early age. As a result their thinking is qualitatively better, because they have a deeper understanding of what language, the essential thinking tool of the brain, actually is, and is not.

"This is not a pipe", said René Magritte, in the explanatory caption which he attached to his picture of a pipe. This caused outrage. Of course it's a pipe! No. It was a picture of a pipe. It wasn't an actual pipe at all. This is the kind of thing that multi-lingual kids get at once.

Immigrants are famously better at artistic creativity than their mono-cultural rivals, and multi-lingual immigrants especially. This is surely because multi-lingualism focusses the mind wonderfully, and at a formatively early age, on the means of artistic expression. A multilinguist is in command of whatever language he ends up using. A monolinguist is all too liable only to be commanded by his language.

In short, multi-linguists are better educated.

Of course, it helps a lot that learning how to talk is something that is still done extremely well in our culture. Once governments seize control of children at the beginning of their learning-to-talk period rather than at the end of it, as they are now starting to do, multi-lingualism will then become a most tremendous problem, and fifteen per cent of the population (including most particularly those who have been confused by the government in more than one language) will grow up unable to utter a single word and in a state of intellectual malformation such as we can now only guess at. Have a nice week, everyone.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:15 PM
Category: Home education

On a tangential note, one of the most bizarre things I ever witnessed was two young brothers (maybe six and seven) having an argument with each other on a train in Switzerland. One was speaking in perfect English, the other in perfect Swiss-German but it was obvious they were entirely unaware that they were speaking in different languages.

Not sure what that proves, but I'm sure it proves something!

Comment by: Julius Blumfeld on February 10, 2003 05:17 PM

Isn't there an Oscar Wilde quote which goes something like, "He knew seven languages and had nothing to say in any of them"...
Knowing more than three or four languages may give people more 'breadth', but possibly less 'depth'. A kind of rootlessness.

Comment by: Christian on February 10, 2003 08:40 PM

>>>One was speaking in perfect English, the other in perfect Swiss-German but it was obvious they were entirely unaware that they were speaking in different languages.<<<

In the US, in Indian-American homes, this is quite common. The child, whose first language is their native dialect, learns English at school and by interacting with his English-speaking friends. Sooner or later, only the understanding of his native dialect remains, without an ability to speak it well. So he speaks to his parents in English, while they respond back in their native dialect. Neither side seems to notice this as being odd. Entire conversations are conducted in this manner.

Comment by: blabla on February 11, 2003 06:03 AM

Our family is multi-lingual and it's quite common for some of us to switch back and forth between languages during the same conversation. We do notice this sometimes but I can't say any one of us has seen it as odd. Why? Because we are concentrating on content, on expressing our ideas and being understood, and as Brian pointed out, all languages are not created equal. Some of us stick to mostly one language because expression is difficult in another, but often it's just that what we want to say is better said in one language than another.

What's interesting is when we actually try to make a conscious effort to speak only one language. When we want to say something that we tend to say in the other language, our tongues get tied as our brains try to catch up to switch over. Or we may slip into the other language for a word or two, despite our best efforts. That can be disconcerting. It feels like your tongue is faster than your brain, but I guess it's just that language is coded more deeply and getting it out of those neural pathways and into conscious control takes a bit of practice.

Comment by: Robin Clochard on February 11, 2003 07:52 AM

I'm temping for a company in Houston that makes components for oil rigs. Most companies like this get employees who were oil rig workers themselves and might come from anywhere (an offshore workers' employment agency I helped last year got applications from practically every European country and easily half of the rest in just the time I was there).

Six people in an elevator might be speaking as many as eight to ten languages simultaneously, depending on who's speaking and who's listening. People from India sometimes converse in their home language, in Hindi, in English, in Spanish, and (if they worked together overseas) possibly Japanese, or Italian, or French, or who knows what.

It's absolutely breathtaking :)

Comment by: Speedwell on February 12, 2003 08:11 AM

In all immigrant families in the U.S., it's common for the parents to speak in their native language and the kids to reply in English.

A recent study concluded that children who learn Spanish at home and English at school go farther academically than Hispanic children who are monolingual. However, learning in Spanish at school conveys no advantage if it delays the introduction of English.

Comment by: Joanne Jacobs on February 15, 2003 06:40 AM

I blog about this topic frequently also, and manage a multingual blogging community [ http://blogalization.org ], which language educators are welcome to join. A friend of mine is running for the school board in the New York suburbs because of cutbacks in a highly effective program for dual-language instruction in his district. [ http://www.hairyeyeball.net/jotbook/archives/001705.html ] Young children are at just the right developmental stage for language acquisition, and the reinforcement of collaborating with Spanish-speaking children was an extremely enriching experience, he says.

Comment by: colin brayton on April 18, 2003 08:05 PM
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