Home Health Your Brain on Multilingualism: the Brave Legacy Honored Today

Your Brain on Multilingualism: the Brave Legacy Honored Today

Photo by JACQUELINE BRANDWAYN on Unsplash

The 30th General Assembly of UNESCO in 1999 proclaimed February 21 as International Mother Language Day. Every year since then, millions around the world observe this day to increase awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and to promote multilingualism. But perhaps not everyone is aware this day commemorates a rare incident in history where people gave their lives for their mother tongue.

The partition of India in 1947 led to the creation of two Islamic nations, West Pakistan (now Pakistan) and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Soon after in 1948, the government of Pakistan declared Urdu as the sole national language across both parts.

The people living in these regions were very different from each other in terms of culture and language and the diktat gave rise to the Bengali Language Movement in the eastern part. At one such protest, on February 21, 1952, in a bid to defuse the protestors, the Pakistani police opened fire on a group of Bangladeshis demanding official recognition for their language. They killed five people and left hundreds injured. This day commemorates the sacrifice of these martyrs.

I am a multilingual immigrant physician working in the U.S. healthcare system. I fluently speak six languages – English, Spanish, and four Indian languages including Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati, and Punjabi – a proud polyglot. With basic Deutsch underway, I wish to be fluent in more languages in the years to come. My mother language is Hindi, and I make sure to speak Hindi with my family members, particularly with the kids around in order to normalize the concept of a second language.

As a radiologist, I see the effects of multilingualism on the human brain through magnetic resonance imaging studies; the benefits of speaking more than one language are tangible and irrefutable.

Bilingualism confers multiple benefits to individuals at all points in their lifespan. Several neuroscientific studies have shown that bilingual infants and children tend to have greater attention control, enhanced communication skills, and improved executive functioning.

Children from bilingual backgrounds tend to have a better acceptance of cultural differences among people. Past the pediatric age group, medical students with knowledge of Greek and Latin have been shown to perform better in anatomy examinations. As adults, bilingual individuals have performed better at multitasking due to a more complex neuronal circuitry seen in their brains. Bilingualism can also increase employment opportunities – positions requiring foreign language proficiency are often unfilled in our diplomatic and intelligence services.

Even in the setting of neurological diseases like multiple sclerosis, learning a second language has shown to increase the volume of grey matter in patients.

The benefits of multilingualism continue well into the latter decades of life. Followingstroke, the recovery of cognitive function is better in bilingual individuals. The postoperative Karnofsky Performance Status score in bilingual patients undergoing surgery for brain tumors is better than their monolingual counterparts – a higher score indicates a better prognosis. Studies have also shown a delay in the onset of Alzheimer’s dementia in multilingual individuals due to the presence of a larger neural reserve.

It is noteworthy that the scope of these benefits is linked to the age at first bilingual exposure – early first exposure in the three to six-year age group has been shown to produce better results.

Despite the overwhelming body of evidence about the advantages of bilingualism, only about 20% of the American population speaks a second language. This number is in stark contrast to Europe where more than 80% of the adult working-age population knows at least one other foreign language.

The higher percentage of bilingual people in Europe is attributable to national language mandates in several countries that add a second language to the school curriculum. A similar language mandate would be ideal but does not exist in the U.S. While schools still play an important role in facilitating the process, the onus of teaching children a non-English language often mostly falls on parents and families.

While a structured course may be the best method to learn a language, the cost of tuition can often be prohibitive. Free video lessons available on streaming sites are an effective learning tool and can be used to gauge the child’s interest in a foreign language. Prima facie, immigrant families seem to have an inherent advantage in this respect. However, children often tend to drop a language due to reasons ranging from lack to consistent exposure to lack of need for a second language.

Another important and often overlooked impediment to language learning is discrimination. In a Pew Research study, 70% of Americans asserted that it was very important to speak the dominant language to be considered truly a national of that land. This is despite the U.S. not having an official national language. In another survey, four in 10 Latinos described experiencing discrimination and being criticized for speaking Spanish. While school districts taking proactive steps would aid in decreasing discrimination, parents themselves can adopt certain measures to facilitate learning and decrease attrition. Consistency and exclusivity are arguably the most important.

Immigrant families can aid learning by consistently and exclusively speaking in the native language at home. Contrary to the widely held belief, a second language spoken at home does not cause confusion or delay speech. Perhaps family members in English-speaking households can allot exclusive hours during the day and weekend where the child speaks in English and then translates as a tandem exercise. Incorporating entertainment into the language learning process is also immensely helpful.

Watching foreign language or even English content with subtitles is an effective method of language acquisition. Virtual meetup groups have become popular in our new, pandemic-modified lifestyle. Enrolling children in online language meetups is yet another tool at the disposal of the parents. UNESCO does its part by providing multilingual educational content online.  

None of the above methods are exclusive to children and work equally well for adults in their language acquisition endeavors. However, the most important step in language learning is speaking the first few words. Nearly 70 years ago, five men in Bangladesh died to preserve their right to speak their native language. Saying a few words in a language you wish to speak would be an apt tribute to those men.

Empecemos ya. Commençons. Cominciamo. Lass uns anfängen.

Dr. Sumeet Dua
Dr. Sumeet Dua
Dr. Sumeet Dua is a practicing radiologist at the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. He is a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project.
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