Does speaking more than one language make a person smarter?
In 2016 an American experiment was conducted to determine whether bilingual people are more intelligent than those who only speak one language. I mean, why the need for an experiment?? Here we are in South Africa and most of us ARE bilingual, if not multilingual, now that we have ELEVEN official languages – we are a ready-made experiment with over 20 years of data!!!
Anyway, the Americans,using ONLY 16 babies, were able to use a nifty type of MRI instrument to identify that the areas of the brain responsible for “executive” thinking and this showed greater activity in the 8 bilingual babies compared to the other 8 babies who had mono-lingual parents and thus only heard one language. They came to the resounding conclusion that bilingual people would be more able to trouble shoot any problems and would also be decisive decision makers (apparently the Americans regard these as “executive” skills).
Well, we don’t have the saying “‘n boere maak ‘n plan” for nothing, do we? I could’ve saved the Americans some money by just pointing them in our direction….all South Africans (who are naturally bilingual at the very least!!) can make a plan to solve ANY problem and we are also capable of making decisions, albeit they may sometimes be the wrong ones – like voting in Jacob!!!!
I wonder what an MRI of our brains would show compared to that of a mono-lingual American if they had used us instead of a measly 16 little babies???
I come from a somewhat multilingual family, myself. My dad was French (but was also fluent in English, Italian and Swahili). My mom was Italian (and spoke English, German, French and Swahili fluently, too). My brother, sister and I were brought up speaking English almost exclusively, although as my maternal granma could only speak Italian or Swahili, we all spoke Italian to some extent and my brother became quite fluent in Swahili as well!! My French grandmother could speak English fluently, so we were not exposed to French until school age!!
On hitting South African shores, I had to learn Afrikaans. So now I can speak English fluently, Italian passably and Afrikaans with a horrible English accent and understand a tiny amount of French. When I met my Portuguese husband to be, we communicated with a bit of broken English (him), Portuguese (him), English (me) and Italian (me)!!! Now, he is fluent in English and I can speak Portuguese passably well. Our two children were brought up speaking English to myself and Portuguese as much as possible to their dad and, of course, picked up Afrikaans in school. (their paternal grandmother only speaks Portuguese). Are they and my husband and myself more intelligent than mono-lingual people? I’d love to think so, but I doubt it! Can we make decisions and solve problems – yes, we’re all pretty good at that. But then, from what I see around me, most South Africans are pretty good at that too!!!
So, ARE multilinguals smarter than monolinguals? There are said to be quite a few hidden advantages of children learning more than one language. Apparently learning more than one language makes them more curious, they learn to appreciate the people and cultures of other countries, they develop much high self esteem and can understand their own culture better. They can also deal better with distractions and grow sharper memories, develop cognitive flexibility and enhance their listening skills as well as developing higher order thinking skills. With all of those advantages, they one would think they should be smarter or are those advantages so hidden that they make no difference to intelligence levels?
Whether making your child smarter or not, if your family is lucky enough to speak more than one language and you are trying to decide whether to speak to your baby in more than one language – go ahead – it won’t confuse them! If each parent speaks to their child in his/her mother tongue most of the time, the child will pick up each language very easily. I do think that if you come from a multilingual family, teaching your children more than just one language will at the very least enable them to understand and speak to relatives who cannot speak your child’s predominant language. Just being able to understand their granny or grandpa, whose home language is different to theirs, is a big advantage and it saves you, the parent, from always translating when the family gets together!! The jury, however, is still out as to whether it is going to make them smarter than a mono-lingual child!
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