Having grown up in a country where learning a second language is mandatory as well as living in several places where English is not the national language, I have often heard it discussed that Multilingualism has its advantages. However, what is the current view on speaking multiple languages?

According to a study by Samantha Fan and Zoe Liberman at the University of Chicago, published in Psychological Science and reported by The Economist, there may be some answers. They report: ‘Children exposed to several languages are better at seeing through others’ eyes.

Human beings are not born with the knowledge that others possess minds with different contents. Children develop such a theory of mind gradually, and even adults have it only imperfectly. The study finds that bilingual children, and also those simply exposed to another language on a regular basis, have an edge at the business of getting inside others’ minds.

In a simple experiment Dr. Fan and Dr. Liberman sat monolingual, bilingual and “exposure”children aged between four and six with a grid of objects placed between them and an experimenter. Some objects were blocked from the experimenter’s sight, a fact the children could clearly see. With a large, a medium and a small car visible to the child, but the small car hidden from the adult, the adult would ask, “Do you see a small car” and ask the child to move it. Both bilingual and those in the exposure group moved the medium-sized car (the smallest experimenter could see) about 75% of the time, against 50% for the monolinguals. The successful children were less likely even to glance at the car the experimenter cold not see.

This study joins a heap of others suggesting that there are cognitive advantages to being bilingual. Researchers have found that bilinguals have better executive function (control over attention and the planning of complex tasks).

Those that suffer dementia begin to do so, on average, almost five years later than
Monolinguals. Full bilinguals had previously been shown to have better theory-of- mind skills. But this experiment is the first to demonstrate that such benefits also accrue to those merely exposed to other languages.

It has become fashionable to consider multilingualism as a kind of elite mental training. The question is not settled, though, many studies have not been successfully replicated. Nor is it yet clear precisely which kinds of language skills and exposure make people better at exactly which tasks. For example, in Dr. Fan and Dr. Liberman’s experiment the bilingual children had found that the executive functions are better than the exposure ones, while in all three groups they had similar vocabularies, fluid intelligence (the ability to reason quickly and think abstractly) and non-verbal visual-spatial skills. This makes it surprising that the exposure group resembled the bilinguals more than the monolinguals when it came to taking the experimenter’s point of view.

If the bilingual advantage is to hold up, more clever research design is needed. Some
advantages may accrue only to bilinguals who switch languages often. Some may apply only to those who live in mixed communities. While some advantages, such as lack of dementia, appear late in life, others may appear early only to disappear thereafter. Research on multilingual minds is, itself, still in a kind of adolescence, but it is a promising one.

While every research paper has it’s critics, especially from those that don’t actually do the research, common comments are replication required, larger group, etc etc which all takes funding and a ‘name’ to have the paper published.

So whilst waiting over the next few decades for scientific validity, taking on a second or more languages is probably always a good idea as learning new things keeps the brain active. Or, if it can help to see the others’ point of view, perhaps a career in international negotiating would be a suitable avenue?

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