"Never settle for less than your dreams.
Somewhere, sometime, someday, somehow, you'll find them

- Danielle Steel, Bittersweet.

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Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Benefits of Being Multilingual

In partnership with Bonjour Institute.
Many Kenyans can speak and write more than one language. Thanks to our education system, many of us are fluent in at least three languages namely English, Swahili and vernacular (mother-tongue).
In some regions however, people are only fluent in just one language. Consider a lovely lass in London who can only speak English, or a gentleman in German who speaks and writes only German.

Multilingualism was the subject of a recent episode of The Forum on BBC World Service. Bridget Kendall had a most impressive panel of experts viz; writer and academic Gustavo Perez Firmat, developmental linguistics academic Antonella Sorace, and cognitive neuroscientist Ellen Bialystok.

They discussed how the brain is affected by juggling between different languages and what effect being bi-lingual or multilingual has on the way people feel about their identity. Also, the effect of fluency in several languages on a child's development.

Complitly Connect Magazine recently sought the views of several multilingual persons, to better understand what goes on both n the minds and lives of those able to speak and write more than one language.

Who can be multilingual?

First off, can anyone speak several languages or that is the preserve of a select, lucky few?

"The ability to speak any number of languages is inherent in all of us, with the exception of those who are mentally disabled." Andrew Kiriti, Director at Bonjour Institute says. "If you spent a summer in Perpignan in the south of France you would come back having achieved a relative fluency of the French language." 

This certainly sounds very interesting, and is music to the years of those who still have 'learning an extra language' in their bucket list. Which brings the age of the learner into the question: Can it ever be too late or one be too old to learn a new language?

"Of course one can learn as an adult but the effort required is understandably more." Andrew says. This seems to suggest that kids have it easier, and we seek a clarification.

"The ideal age to learn a language is when one is young. Children can pick up almost any language if they are thrust into the language's environment. Noam Chomsky attributed this to the Language Acquisition Device (LAD), a theoretical module that explains children's innate predisposition to learning new languages." Andrew adds. Noam is an acclaimed linguist, philosopher, and cognitive scientist.

The Benefits of Multilingualism

Andrew says there are many benefits, and lists the following:
  • it facilitates global travel.
  • increases job opportunities
  • improves cross-cultural interaction
  • increases one's sense of self-worth
  • improved ability to resolve conflict
  • physiological benefits such as delayed onset of dementia.

This makes learning a new language very attractive indeed. So why aren't we all learning all the possible languages this world has to offer? 

The Challenges

"As a tutor," says Andrew, "I'd list the mother tongue's influence as a key challenge, which mostly affects pronunciation. Add to this the fact that one is already fluent in some language or other and this natural urge to 'think in' and therefore speak, a language one is already conversant with makes learning difficult."

And so we ask: Are these the same challenges you encountered when you learned French back in the day?

"For the student, and looking back to my days in high school, I blame it on impatience. Additionally, lack of dedication is a major hindrance." He then goes ahead and adds, "this lack of dedication can be by either or both parties - tutor and student."

Does being multilingual make you any smarter?

In view of the aforementioned benefits to the brain, can we safely assume that fluency in many languages makes one brilliant? Back to the episode of The Forum, for the experts to confirm or deny such an assertion..
Unknown to many, being multilingual actually makes one smarter.
Here's a clip on the benefits of speaking two or more languages:

So what languages would be great to start with?

"This mostly depends on your main area of operation and why you are learning the language." advises Andrew. He breaks it down thus:
  • In Africa and Europe,  French is the most beneficial given the extent of use and opportunities in careers such as Translation and Interpretation which pay quite well.
  • In the Americas I believe Spanish and Portuguese would make more sense for the same reasons.
  • Mandarin would be essential for trade with China.
Which then, among these languages are offered at Bonjour Institute? "We only specialize in the French language." says Andrew.

Finally, all this talk about speaking and writing several languages reminds us of these words:

Well, I feel like they're talking in a language I don't speak
And they're talking it to me..

All said and done, let's just talk!