Did you know that approximately 60 -75% of the world is bilingual? The high percentage isn’t really surprising when globalisation has enabled people to move around more easily. A couple of years ago a friend of mine posted a video on my facebook about bilingualism. Both she and I grew up bilingually, and watching a video where acclaimed scholars spoke about the relationship between one language and the other was really eye opening. Actually, I believe it changed the way I looked at these languages, as trying to work out which language was my mother tongue was quite confusing. Some people would tell me one thing and other would tell me the opposite. The main message that I got from the video was that bilingual children would always separate their two languages; one of their languages would be associated with family and childhood and the other language would be connected to day-to-day life. This explained it all.
There is a common myth that in bilingualism the individual has to be equally as fluent in both languages but this is not the case. A bilingual individual will always have a dominant language and this will also be known as their mother tongue. So how can you tell which language is dominant? You can tell this quite easily – your dominant language is the one you are most comfortable using and more educated in. It is said that the vocabulary of a bilingual speaker of one language will not be as rich as a monolingual speaker. Nevertheless, bilingual speakers will have an accumulated vocabulary in both languages that matches the richness of the vocabulary a monolingual speaker knows. It is probably for this reason that some parents who have immigrated avoid teaching their children their family’s language – the fear of confusion.
Parents often panic when bilingual children start mixing words from one language with the other but ‘code mixing’, as it is called, is believed to be a natural part of being bilingual. In fact, to some researchers code mixing is a sign of bilingual proficiency. Sometimes code-mixing can be a way of bilingual speakers compensating the fact they do not know one word in one language so they use the other language. Perhaps this is part of the reason why many languages have fragmented and formed new derivations like Spanglish/Espanglish. Some people view this fragmentation of languages in a negative light but we should be proud that languages are converging in such a way, indicating an increase of bilingual/multilingual speakers across the world.
There are various advantages in being bilingual, some of which are highlighted below:
It is believed that bilingual children are better at ignoring any distractions and focusing on the things at hand.
- Bilinguals are believed to be more creative and better at planning as well as solving complex problems.
- Research has shown that the aging effects on the brain are experienced later in bilinguals than monolinguals. For instance, a study demonstrated that dementia occurred four years later in bilinguals than in monolinguals.
- Bilinguals/ multilinguals have more languages at their disposal as well as resources.
- Generally, it is assumed that bilingual individuals earn more money when in employment.
BUT what if you forget one of your languages? Due to the huge cognitive advantages that being bilingual have on your brain, a trace of a lost language will always be engraved in your brain. This is because from a young age, a child makes representations of sounds associated with a language but even after the language is lost, the child will have the same brain activation as a monolingual speaker of that ‘lost’ language. This new discovery has opened questions related to the relearning of this ‘lost’ language as well as the influence that this has on the individual’s development. However, if there is still a trace of the language then does this really mean it is a ‘lost’ language? And is the answer to the relearning question not as simple as saying that relearning the language would be like relearning how to ride a bike or drive after not doing so for a while? What do you all think?
Remember the world is your oyster to all you language speakers. Keep up the learning; it will be worth it scientifically as well as personally 😉
I decided to post this because I am inspired by many of you, especially those who walk through our office looking for ways to improve their English language skills. In fact, I’m pretty sure that everyone at the office feels this way about our students and this is what gives us extra motivation to keep on improving our services. Most of us have been in the same position as you guys, being new in a country is a pretty daunting experience at first and we totally get you, that’s why we have created such a friendly environment at our office, to help you on this journey.
I grew up in England so I won’t really understand what it’s like to be new here. However, I still do understand you all because I was new in Spain and yes, even new in China! I’m pretty lucky because I grew up bilingually with both the English and Portuguese languages running along side each other. At times I found it confusing because at school I spoke English and at home I would speak Portuguese. This facilitated my move to Spain that I had to do as part of my degree – BUT only slightly. I spent a semester studying at a University in Madrid and found it challenging to get my head around the different educational system. Then there was obviously the fact that I didn’t know anyone, which made me feel a little lonely and living with a family there also made me feel like sometimes I didn’t belong there. This was in no way because of the family but it was probably all in my mind. Of course, it’s natural to feel this way but ultimately you have to remember why you’re in this new unfamiliar country. Your main aim is probably to learn/ improve your fluency in the language and gain a brilliant life experience.
This realisation was made even clearer when I spent the next semester in Beijing, China. I missed my family and keeping in contact with people back home was difficult because of the time difference. Then there was my reluctance to speak the language – I hadn’t spoken Chinese since before I had gone to Spain so I was embarrassed no one would understand me if I tried to speak in Chinese. It was easy to make friends though, I was in classes everyday and I stayed in student halls for international students. There was a mix of nationalities and a lot of Americans, Canadians and Australians so the temptation to speak English was always there and obviously the language in common made us all bond. Many of you are probably experiencing similar things. But this a normal part of the process so don’t get frustrated with yourself for not making much progress in the language right away or for only hanging out with speaker’s of you own language. This is just a natural way of coping with the culture shock you’re experiencing.
I have come up with a several tips to help you make the most of your experience abroad as well as improve your language skills.
- Remember your objective: Always keep in mind why you decided to go abroad. Was it to find work? Was it to improve your language? Was it to do both these things? If so, remember to make this your priority.
- Emotionally distance yourself from home: A girl advised me to not speak to my family every day and to put away photos of loved ones for the first couple of weeks at least. She believed that this would reduce how homesick I would feel until I got used to the change.
- Get over that embarrassment: There is no point in being embarrassed to speak… the more you speak and make mistakes, the more you will learn. In turn, this will help your confidence too! A good way to do this is to go to a market where you can haggle and interact with locals.
- Get some classes: The key to speaking a language well is by understanding it. Get some classes to help your understanding with professionals and other students who are just as eager as you.
- Arrange trips: Learning about the place and its culture is also essential in order to improve both your linguistic and cultural knowledge. Try to arrange this with others who don’t speak the same language so you are forced to speak English in your group.
- Independence: Go out and explore the city on your own. There is no better confidence booster than this!
- When in Rome, do as the Romans do: You may not be used to or even like certain things about England but try it anyway. Have some fish and chips the traditional way! Another way to live like a Brit would be to actually live with some – be it living with a host family or in shared accommodation.
I hope these tips help you and remember to give yourself time. Don’t expect miracles in your first week or even in your first month. We’re all different learners so we will get to where we want at our own pace. Of course, we can do things to help the learning process along and a lot of it includes distancing yourself from your home country’s customs and language. As a language learner you are exposing yourself to the culture so you have to be open-minded too. Be patient and in the meantime enjoy the experience and make friends for life.