Leave Los Niños Alone! The Mental Costs of Linguistic Assimilation

By Julie Sedivy | January 19, 2012 12:33 pm

Julie Sedivy is the lead author of Sold on Language: How Advertisers Talk to You And What This Says About You. She contributes regularly to Psychology Today and Language Log. She is an adjunct professor at the University of Calgary, and can be found at juliesedivy.com and on Twitter/soldonlanguage.

Due to a migratory childhood (born in Czechoslovakia, and eventually landing in Montreal via Austria and Italy), English was the fifth language I had to grapple with in my tender years. On my first day of kindergarten, I spoke only a few words of English. I could see that my teacher had some concerns as to how well I would integrate linguistically; my stumbling English was met with pursed lips.

The pursed-lips reaction of my teacher is shared by many who advocate English-only legislation for the U.S., seeking to ban the use of other languages in schools, government documents, and even radio stations and signs on private businesses. The common worry is that making it easier for immigrants to function in their native language is a form of enabling—it prevents them from learning English, hobbling their full entry into American society. Over the past few decades, the waves of Latin American immigrants have only increased such concerns. For example, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that in 1980, less than 11% of the population spoke a language other than English at home. By 2007, that number had grown to almost 20%. If you looked no further, you might see this as evidence of a potential threat to the English-speaking identity of the U.S.

But these fears are misplaced. Just like I did, most young immigrants from any country eventually master English. It’s true that the rate of Spanish-only speakers in the U.S. has increased dramatically, and that these immigrants often cluster in Spanish-speaking neighborhoods. But a more telling statistic is what happens to such families a few generations after they’ve arrived. As Robert Lane Greene reports in his book You Are What You Speak, it’s the same thing that’s happened to all immigrant groups in the U.S.: within the space of a few generations, they not only function perfectly in English, but in the process lose their heritage language. Even among Mexican immigrants, currently the slowest group in the U.S. to shed their ancestral language, fewer than 10% of fourth-generation immigrants speak Spanish very well. As Greene points out, who needs disincentives to speak the heritage language when the economic and cultural imperatives to speak English are already so great?

My own family’s experience reflects these statistics. Though it was the fifth language I learned, English is by far the one I wear most comfortably. My children, who were raised in the Northeastern U.S., are effectively monolingual English speakers, and sometimes express resentment that I never spoke to them at home in French or in Czech. Without ready access to other-language friends and resources, the task of being solely responsible for their bilingualism felt too demanding, and potentially isolating.

But I have to admit: based on recent research, it seems their resentment is justified. Aside from the most obvious advantage of wielding more than one language, there’s now a booming scientific literature suggesting that bilingualism is a bracing tonic for the brain. The advantages seem to hinge on the cognitive machinery of executive control—mental processes that allow us to switch quickly between tasks or competing information. Bilinguals tend to outperform monolinguals whenever they have to ignore distracting information and focus on some relevant dimension. For instance, they respond faster and with fewer mistakes on questions from a Stroop Test, like this:



(The Stroop test includes the name of a color written in a different color; the correct response for this test item would be red.)

Why would such an advantage emerge? We don’t know for sure, but the current thinking is that it’s a side effect of the mental exertion that’s needed for juggling two language systems. When a bilingual speaks in one language, the other language still pulses, so that while searching for the word speak, for example, the word hablar might come to mind. This is why you often see bilinguals in conversation with each other code switching, or stirring their two languages together even within the same sentence. But bilingual speech, whether it overtly mixes languages or not, is a highly controlled process involving rapid-fire decisions about which words to choose and which ones to suppress. It’s as if living in two languages meant spending your verbal life in a never-ending Stroop test.

More than just a neat trick, the effects of bilingualism are surprisingly far-reaching and stretch across the lifespan. A bilingual advantage for quick attention-shifting has been found in babies as young as seven months, well before these children ever utter their first words in either language. And the cognitive benefits are turning up on a number of measures that tap into cognitive flexibility. For instance, an intriguing Israeli study led by Esther Adi-Japha found that the drawings of bilingual kindergarten-age kids were different from their monolingual peers. When asked to draw a picture of a flower that does not exist, monolingual children were fairly unadventurous, drawing perhaps a flower that was missing its leaves, or a flower with only one petal. Bilingual children, on the other hand, incorporated elements from completely different objects—producing for instance, a flower with a tail, or a flower with teeth. This kind of cross-category mixing in children’s drawings tends not to occur until kids are about eight years old, putting the bilingual kids on an accelerated timeline for this particular skill.

At the far end of the lifespan, bilingualism may help postpone the symptoms associated with Alzheimer’s disease; some bilingual Alzheimer’s populations have shown delays of four to five years in the onset of their symptoms as compared with their monolingual peers.

But if you’re looking to boost your brainpower with bilingualism, simply taking an evening course in French or Spanish probably won’t cut it. The greatest cognitive rewards seem to come to lifelong bilingual speakers who must regularly switch between their two languages. This makes psychological sense: in situations where only one language is pertinent, the other language becomes a bit more quiescent, leading to less strident competition between the two language systems. This may have an impact on a person’s cognitive profile over time.

In one recent study, Anat Prior and Tamar Gollan compared Mandarin-English bilinguals, Spanish-English bilinguals, and monolingual English speakers living in San Diego. As you might expect, the Spanish-English speakers flipped between their languages on a daily basis. Mandarin-English speakers, on the other hand, kept their language use more compartmentalized. (Incidentally, Asian immigrants to the U.S. are among the fastest to lose their heritage languages.) All three groups were given a test in which they had to switch between sorting visual images either by their color or by their shape. Only the Spanish-English bilinguals showed a relative advantage when confronted with a sudden category shift; the Mandarin-English speakers were no different on this score than the monolinguals.

In the end, it’s clear that English is not under threat in the U.S. —bilingualism is. And the greatest cognitive benefits of bilingualism are likely to be reaped by those who are able to use their non-English language with neighbors, teachers, and bank tellers, those who can talk to other bilinguals in speech that is spangled with Spanglish or Chinglish or Franglais. In other words, those who are lucky enough to have the kind of bilingual environment that my kids never had. Just the kind of environment that English-only advocates seek to obliterate.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, Top Posts
  • kn

    Given that most of our native speaking, monolingual English population can barely communicate in that language, I think we should work on that before looking to ban others.

  • David Hellsten

    As the Swedish father of two bilingual children (English being the dominant language), I agree whole-heartedly with you. People often seem to worry about bilingualism making children speak later; our daughter started talking at 8 months and never looked back, so we never had to worry about whether they might be right… I just hope the powers that be will listen to reason!

  • Roger Clegg, Ctr for

    No one is saying that you can’t continue to keep up with your original language at home. But the priority of our public schools has to be to teach children English as quickly as possible, and for that “bilingual education” works poorly (versus some sort of structured immersion program). Being proficient in English is essential for success in this country, and it is essential that Americans be able to communicate with one another.

  • http://manyworldsmanyminds.wordpress.com Eden Mabee

    I’ve watched this happen, and I wondered once if the parent involved was being unkind to insist her daughter (she was in a day care I worked at) receive bilingual instruction (which, wasn’t easy for us, but probably a good thing as well)…. Anyway, I try to do something of the same for my own son now, even though the majority of French he receives is simply from his class at school and our trips to Montreal.

    It would be interesting to note if there might be ways to actually encourage a multilingual culture in the US. I’m for it.

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  • Randy

    Have any test like this been done in European countries?

  • C L Thornett

    I am glad to hear what a multi-lingual person has to say about language acquisition and immigration. (I am only truly bilingual, if I can call it that, in US/UK English, being nothing close to fluent in other languages.)

    In the UK, as well as the US, loud cries of ‘Make them speak English’ seem to be equally matched by cuts to public adult education programmes that would actually help adults to learn English and to language and learning support for children of immigrant families. I would say that many, perhaps a majority, of my colleagues in ESOL are opposed to forcing people to learn English, however much we would want them to learn. There is little support for ‘English only’ campaigns among my colleagues, either.

    There is no single close equivalent to the situation you describe with Latinos and Spanish, but the current hostility in the UK to immigrants from South Asia, particularly to those who are Muslim, would seem to foster a similar resistance to learning or using English once visa and citizenship requirements are met, or among the generation who settled before these requirements were imposed. This seems to be particularly true where any immigrant groups have been substantially confined to ghettoized communities.

    However, I do have a small quibble: I particularly dislike the reverse, negative sense in which you used the word ‘enabling’. Teaching someone English can enable them to participate more successfully in an English-speaking society. I am proud, as a recently retired ESOL teacher, of enabling my former students to obtain UK citizenship, to gain academic qualifications, to find jobs or better jobs and to pursue the lives they wished to lead. Enabling students is one of the most important parts of being an adult basic skills teacher.

  • Kevin

    I’m a bit puzzled by the sentence “The common worry is that making it easier for immigrants to function in their native language is a form of enabling—it prevents them from learning English, hobbling their full entry into American society.”

    How can preventing and hobbling amount to enabling? Did you mean “a form of disabling”?

  • scribbler

    I work in a factory where there are Mexican speakers. When a machine needs to be shut down before it blows up or otherwise maims others, it is “handy” when the person using it KNOWS that “Shut that thing down!!!” means to turn it off. Shouting those instructions in five or six languages is not only impractical but can be lethal.

    Y’all live when English is the vastly predominant language. Do us ALL a favor and learn it the best you can…

  • scribbler

    As for rights…

    Don’t we all have the right to at least try to communicate with others? Why try to limit this ability?

  • http://visca.com Lou Hevly

    Another interesting field of study might be to determine if those Catalans and Basques who are bilingual from birth would suffer the onset of Alzheimer’s more slowly than monolingual Spaniards (research would seem to indicate that they would). Also, it would be interesting to learn if the brain’s executive control system worked differently for similar (Catalan/Spanish) and dissimilar (Basque/Spanish) languages.
    Finally, to determine if there were a difference between bilinguals-from-infancy and bilinguals who acquired their bilingualism as adults, these results could then be compared with those of Spaniards who had migrated to either the Basque Country or Catalonia and become fluent in these languages as adults.

  • Gulzhanat

    Bilingualism is good may be, but we have problems in our country with our mother tongue because of the influence of the second language Russian. My mother tongue is Kazakh. This language is state language too. Russian is international language of our country because many representatives of hundred nationalities live here. We have to do our best to save the usage field of the Kazakh. We feel the information pressure of Russian language in all sphere of our life. May be to survive we need such kind of law as in France that define the norms of the French and using of the other language in news papers radio, TVs ect.

  • Frank Sellers

    “Respect are-country”?!? LOL! What re*****!!!

  • GeeBee

    The confusion over the use of the word “enabling” is that here it is being used in its “pop psychology” sense. An enabler is one who tacitly encourages a bad behavior by not opposing it. Thus a parent who always bails out a child who gets in trouble with the law is said to be “enabling” the lawless behavior.

  • Auntieg

    The person who made the sign should actually learn our language before insisting others do so. You “are” an embarrassment to “our” country, moron.

  • Amtak

    Bummer! I studied Latin in school, never found anyone outside to converse; it’s good only for noticing gross errors by U.S. English-only speakers (such as “media is”). Then I picked up street French, but unable to use it outside France and Quebec other than to notice gross errors by British English-only speakers (as in “Elephant and Castle” for “l’Enfant de Castile”). My son is smarter. He settled in Barcelona three decades ago, now has two beautiful Catalan children fluent in (1) Catala, (2) Castilian, (3) English. Beware, those who hope to “save are country” by forcing English-only; the future belongs to the multilingual — as you will discover if you compete for jobs after this decade.

  • Ben Wise

    C L Thornett and Kevin: The author used “enabling” in the sense it is used by psychologists and others to describe behavior that panders to the weaknesses of others, often with the best of intentions, thus “enabling” them to maintain their addictions or other undesirable forms of behavior. So the author means that opponents to bilingual education would say that it is simply “enabling” foreign speakers to take the “easy road” and not do the hard work of learning English as they “should”. Do not fault the author for using this term in exactly the way it is used when discussing such matters.

  • Richard

    Julie Sedivy essay is about the intellectual advantages of being bilingual, not the necessity, or demonstrating acceptance of a society by speaking only the language of a particular enviroment. Keep cool Englishmen and Americans, a foreign language is not going to topple you! English is slated to pervade because it has so simplified language grammar and syntax for the masses, all without sacrificing the interchange of knowledge.

  • Justin

    I grew up going to french school in a french household but immersed in an English environment. Being fully bilingual by the age of four, I found that even though my formal education in English only started in grade 4, there was no perceptible difference in the quality of englsih between myself and those attending English school. The key is that when immersed in the environment (radio, TV, conversing w/ friends in English), it does not matter that the school attended is of another language because you can’t help learning the language fluently.

  • Jo

    I grew up monolingually, with my father choosing not to share his mother tongue with us. I’m past the resentment stage now, and I understand his reasons: it was an uncommon language that my mother didn’t speak, he had little contact with his family and worked long hours. But I feel a great sense of loss for the culture I can’t access, and for the family I can’t communicate with.

    I’m now married to a German man and we’re bringing up our son bilingually. I expect him to speak later than average, which is surprisingly relaxing: while friends are beginning to compete for their children’s first words, I find myself excused from the comparisons. It’s wonderful to think he might have neurological advantages, but the fact that he’ll have first-hand access to two cultures, two countries, two literatures, is for me a truly marvellous thing. He has a privileged background (two educated, professional parents), so it’s a different situation to many immigrant families, but bilingualism in all its forms seems to me to be fundamentally enriching.

  • Sian Lloyd-Webber

    Of course language is fun : the more the merrier; coz it opens a window into a nation’s culture and psyche too. But all those psychological trick tests may be too dubious to draw generalised conclusions! Around 300m (of 1bn) Indians are trilingual (like, speaking Tamil, Hindi, English); whereas most of 80m Japanese are essentially monolingual. But that didn’t seem to put Japan at an innovative disadvantage? Similarly, Alzheimer’s etc may be more related to a population’s food habits than tackling language challenges — there’re plenty of other challenges in life, not to worry. 😉

  • http://www.creativehedgehog.com Alison

    I would have grown up as an English speaking monolingual if I hadn’t grown up over seas where my parents worked. English speakers sometimes think that their language is best, and since everyone else is learning English, they don’t have to learn another language. They are missing out. To learn another language and be bilingual is such a mental advantage, and I get sad and angry when “english onlyers” purse their lips and expect everyone else to assimilate.

    This is why I am going to be a Spanish teacher.

  • http://andreadallover.com Joe McVeigh

    As the father of a bilingual (English and Finnish) three-year-old, I’m wondering what the research has to say about getting them to shut up.

    Just kidding. Great article, Julie. Looking forward to more.

  • floodmouse

    Knowledge is power. It’s silly to throw away what is essentially “free knowledge,” out of some outmoded sense of patriotism. Historical perspective teaches that the children of immigrants will be fluent in English. Global strategy implies it would be useful to have them be fluent in other languages too.

  • Mary

    Multilingualism is great, and I envy those who can easily switch from one language to another. But this article doesn’t address the real reason that so many people object to the plurality of languages in our society: the cost to the taxpayers. Millions of taxpayer dollars are spent on providing forms and services in languages other than English every year. And as Scribbler noted, everyone needs to speak the same language when working in dangerous environments. Serious accidents happen when danger warnings shouted in English cannot be understood by everyone on site. So it’s great that so many people in our society can speak more than one language, but in the interest of saving lives and taxpayer dollars, everyone also needs to be fluent in English.

  • Adam

    I’ve heard a great deal about the advantages of bilingualism, but that brings up the question, why does it die out in successive generations so quickly? Growing up bilingual I have many memories of (and scars from) incessant fights over going to Saturday Chinese school instead of watching cartoons.

    I believe the fact that children are so quick to drop their immigrant legacy is that cultural fluency is a competition for social status. I hope you will accept that there is a continuum from linguistic fluency to cultural fluency. Even in language acquisition there are finite resources, I don’t believe bilingualism comes for free. In my example above I could either learn more about my parents’ culture or about American pop culture. The relative merits may seem obvious to most readers here (I’m guessing most of you are parents) but let me ask you how you think this choice affected my social status on the playground.

    Nothing comes for free. Fluency in the dominant culture doesn’t stop at competence. As a bilingual I am all for elevating our status in the dominant culture. But everything happens for a reason.

  • Joaquin C. Armendariz

    Many years ago researchers in many countries had documented the many I.Q., cognitive, learning, creativity, empathy for others, etc. advantages and benefits that bilingual/multilinguals posses. The best kept secret in education is that children who acquire and then learn two or more languages are sifnificantly more Intelligent than Monlinguals!!!!The research is there. The problem is that in this country everyone is an expert in learning and schooling and educational policies are forced down the throats of school districts and teachers by politicians who are unqualified in the educational sciences, ignorant philanthropists/mayors like Bill Gates and Rahm Emmanuel who feel they kmow how to fix our schools that are overwhelmed with the social problems students bring to class and the masses of “ignoranti” with racist/nativist agendas that elect their kind to local school boards. Bilingual/Multilinguals are a national competitive and security resource- the 9-11 attack would not have happened if there had been good quality English-Arabic Bilingual programs in this country which would have greatly improved the rate of “chatter” translation. However, the nativists saw to it that this was not to be! Ain’t KARMA A BITCH?


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About Julie Sedivy

Julie Sedivy teaches at the University of Calgary. She is the author of Language in Mind: An Introduction to Psycholinguistics and the co-author of Sold on Language: How Advertisers Talk to You and What This Says About You.


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