Monday, April 30, 2012

Bangladesh - Multifaceted benefits of bilingualism

BANGLADESH is the motherland of the International Mother Language Day. English is widely used in this country because of its colonial history. There are some people here who speak Urdu and there are also many indigenous languages.

This multilingual condition is a blessing for us. Globalisation demands and speeds up the process of becoming multilingual citizens. Many cities have people who can speak in more than one language. The number of bilingual and even trilingual people is rising day by day. And there is the increasing economic pressure to keep it rising on.

Bilingualism has multifaceted benefits: economic, cultural, cognitive and even medical. Ellen Bialystok's research work has brought the discussion about the benefits of bilingualism to the forefront for nearly a decade. She is a cognitive neuroscientist and professor of psychology at York University in Toronto, Canada. She engaged herself in research studying the effects of a second language acquisition on school children. There was a startling finding out of a simple question to children.

The children were asked if a certain illogical sentence was grammatically correct: "Apples grow on noses." Monolingual children couldn't answer. They'd say: "That's silly" and they'd stop. But bilingual children would say: "It's silly, but it's grammatically correct." They found that bilinguals manifested a cognitive system with the ability to attend to important information and ignore the less important. ("The Bilingual Advantage, Interview by Claudia Dreifus," The New York Times, May 30, 2011).

In a 2004 study, published in the Psychology and Aging, Ellen Bialystok and Michelle Martin-Rhee asked bilingual and monolingual preschoolers to sort blue circles and red squares presented on a computer screen into two digital bins -- one marked with a blue square and the other marked with a red circle. They found that "individuals who grew up speaking two languages and continue to do so performed significantly better on a variety of simple cognitive tasks than people who speak only one. Furthermore, the differences between the two groups increased with age, leading her to hypothesise that knowing and using two languages inhibits the mind's decline." ("Biligualism may protect the mind from deterioration in old age," The Economist, June 17, 2004).

In a 2009 study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Agnes Kovacs and Jacques Mehler at the International School for Advanced Studies in Trieste, Italy, found that some aspects of the cognitive development of infants raised in a bilingual household undergoes acceleration in order to manage whichever of the two languages they are dealing with. ("Bilingual babies are precocious decision-makers," The Economist, April 16, 2009)

In their next studies, Ellen Bialystok's team looked at the medical records of 400 Alzheimer's patients. "On average, the bilinguals showed Alzheimer's symptoms five or six years later than those who spoke only one language. This didn't mean that the bilinguals didn't have Alzheimer's. It meant that as the disease took root in their brains, they were able to continue functioning at a higher level." (Interview by Claudia Dreifus).

This is supported by another study carried out by Judith Kroll, a psychologist at Penn State University. It found that "speaking more than one language keeps the brain in shape and bolsters mental function." ("Being bilingual may delay Alzheimer's and boost brain power," Alok Jha, The Guardian, February 18, 2011).

All this is on the medical front, but bilinguals reap benefits on the economic front too. Economics professors Louis Christofides and Robert Swidinsky found that men in Quebec, Canada, who can speak both official languages, English and French, earn an average income 7% higher than those who speak only French, and bilingual women in Quebec earn 8% more. ("Bilingualism pays, study finds," by Wency Leung, The Globe and Mail, August 30, 2010).

Bilingual benefits fall on the cultural front too, as Wency Leung wrote in the same report: "Dr. Christofides says employers may be willing to pay workers extra simply for knowing a second language because bilingualism is associated with other attributes, such as a proclivity for education, cultural sensitivity or sophistication."

In a study comparing German-Italian bilinguals with Italian monolinguals on monitoring tasks, Mr. Albert Costa, a researcher at the University of Pompeu Fabra in Spain, and his colleagues found that the bilingual subjects not only performed better, but they also did so with less activity in parts of the brain involved in monitoring, indicating that they were more efficient at it. Again, "in a recent study of 44 elderly Spanish-English bilinguals, scientists led by the neuropsychologist Tamar Gollan of the University of California, San Diego, found that individuals with a higher degree of bilingualism -- measured through a comparative evaluation of proficiency in each language -- were more resistant than others to the onset of dementia and other symptoms of Alzheimer's disease." ("Why Bilinguals Are Smarter," by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, The New York Times, March 17, 2012).

The government of Bangladesh should adopt a right language policy. We must avoid the policy of the one-sided emphasis of learning only English as a second language. Let Bangladesh be a land where one can hear all major languages in the world. This will increase foreign investment and tourism. It will also make it easy for our people to move around the world and have a better job than they are doing now. The money spent by the government for this will be returned being many times. People of Bangladesh will be smarter physically, economically and culturally. The Bangla language will reach a new height of beauty and enrichment by having its speakers got into touch with other languages in the world.

Alamgir Khan
The writer is Programme Manager, Research and Development Collective (RDC).

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