Second Languages: Brains and Brexit


by Dr Rachel Sumner – @Dr_Sumner

A recent tweet from Erasmus+ showed a breakdown of the percentage of people aged 15-30 who could read and write in a second language. It made for grim reading. Of our European sibling nations, the lowest was Italy at 71%, with a reasonably even spectrum from there up to 99% (bravo, Norway). But where was the UK? I remember being forced to learn German at Secondary School, after having started to learn French at Primary. I hated it, and couldn’t wait to stop doing it when I took my GCSE choices, but I still had French (which I then continued to A Level), so for me that was ok. Based on my own experience I imagined we should be reasonably up there. NOPE. Not even slightly! Unbelievably, tragically, just 32% of our 15-30 year-olds can read and write in another language. And we wonder why we have problems like Brexit. Before I continue, it’s important to note that I’ve not taken this opportunity just to bang on about my cause du jour. It’s coming, make no mistake, but the issue of second language acquisition is so much bigger than that.

Second language acquisition has been shown to massively accelerate the cognitive and intellectual abilities of children. Anyone who’s been in my lecture on brain development will know that (spoiler alert for those of you taking it next year). Children are able to learn languages and other skills a lot more easily because their brains are plastic (in the sense of being able to change, not in the sense of what we need to use less of). This means not only do children benefit from learning second languages, they actually find it a lot easier too. Sometimes life is just unfair like that. Way back in 1962 it was recognised that bilingualism was associated with higher attainment on IQ tests, and the research has kept on coming since then. Among the cognitive benefits of second language acquisition for children, there is the ability to form more diverse, stronger, and faster neural pathways. This advantage is even more pronounced in what are referred to as simultaneous bilinguals (i.e. those that grow up learning two languages from the outset). Even more interesting is the ability for multilingual brains to perform significantly better on cognitive tasks where managing conflicting attentional demands are required. Here, the advantage even confers to brain structure, where those who are bilingual from birth tend to have higher grey matter volumes and thicker cortices with effects lasting long into adulthood. These changes are also associated with the age of learning and the proficiency with the second (or third or fourth) language. This all sounds very fancy; I mean who wouldn’t want a thicker cortex? In seriousness it’s all very abstract when put in those terms, but the reality of it is as fascinating as it is inspiring.

In adults, not only can we see the effects of multilingualism in brain structure, they can be measured in cognitive function tests. Multilingualism has been said to have a linear relationship with reaction times with decision making tasks, and is associated with improvements in a number of high-demand cognitive functions such as decision making, planning, and attending to information. The cognitive benefits of multilingualism last well into very old age. Some studies have suggested a predictive capacity of number of languages spoken and cognitive function and capability in the “oldest old” (e.g. 75-95 year olds). Rather more importantly, there has been said to be a protective effect of bi/multilingualism against the onset of dementia in later life even for those learning other languages during adulthood. There are some disadvantages to multilingualism – all that organisation has to come at some sort of a cost – but arguably the cognitive benefits outweigh the risks.

As much as language can be beneficial, it can also be divisive, and a tool of oppression. We don’t need to look any further than our own illustriously shameful history of colonialism to see how our previous empire used language to control other races and nations. A prime example of this is Ireland, where their language is now thankfully being carefully preserved, but was once made illegal by our ruling state after we basically stole their land. This, of course, wasn’t all we did to the Irish – but depriving a people of their language is a good place to start when thinking about overall dominance and oppression. To this day our reprehensible actions of foreign policy still cause trauma and grief, not least is the legacy of the forbidden language. Certainly, Ireland is not where we started, and – ironically – our own world-dominating language is actually the product of this island being occupied and inhabited by many other nations throughout history. The vital importance, however, is that English is actually an amalgamation of many languages – Norse, French, Danish, Latin, and Gaelic to name just a few. The very clear difference here being that English is a mixture of these; a new language was evolved from, not dictated by, international influence.

Here begins the key definition for me of what language means to us Brits, and why we are so reluctant to diversify. It could be reasonably argued that English is now an international language. This is, of course, true – with many universities across the world insisting that their Masters and PhD students produce their theses in English rather than the native tongue. However, I think it’s much more than that. I think our culture has yet to shrug off its comfy coat of colonialist attitude, of utterly mind-boggling superiority and command for a state that is smaller than most of its neighbouring lands (there is an excellent website to compare country sizes here). You have to look no further than any of those trashy TV shows that show Brits abroad to see how utterly embarrassing and laughable our national attitude of linguistic superiority is: “DOS SERVAYSAZ POR FAVORR, PEDRO!”. I won’t go into the conduct and behaviour of our wonderful national ambassadors that are a good section of our football fans, but suffice it to say we are not held in very high esteem by our continental cousins. And for good reason.

Critically, the most desperate and tragic part of this all is what this lack of (or reluctance for) multilingualism means for our people and our culture. Some say that preserving language is the epitome of protecting culture, certainly this is most definitely the case for our brothers and sisters over the water in Ireland who have worked so hard to regain their own cultural identity through language and other means. The problem with Brits is there doesn’t seem to be any middle ground. Any talk of multiculturalism sparks the inevitably tedious “we’ll have Shariah law next” comment from many a Brit. Perhaps it’s our long history of telling others what to do and trying to replace their individual culture that’s made us scared that others will do the same to us – who knows. What many seem to fail to understand is that language – like many other cultural symbols and functions – can coexist peacefully if that is what’s wanted. Take a look at The Netherlands, where as a matter of course children are brought up speaking Dutch, English, French, and German. Dutch people still know they’re Dutch, there is no cultural befuddlement brought on by being able to talk to more people, only excellent opportunities for international travel and communication.

And this now brings us nicely back to my bête noire – Brexit. Is it really any wonder that there is such strong anti-other sentiment in the UK when less than a third of us speak anything other than our native language? What better way to fear someone when they speak a language we don’t understand? They could be talking about us and we wouldn’t know it! They could be scheming against us! They could be mocking our Queen! Or, worse still, tea! It is this self-imposed ignorance that I will never understand about British culture. Deeply entrenched in ideas of superiority and entitlement, we expect others to align to us and give none of the same in return. Incredulously WE then think that OTHERS are being unfair and exclusionary if they laugh at our stubborn refusal to be open to new experiences. This is exemplified now more than ever in the horrific “EUSSR” rhetoric used by the fervently pro-Brexit of our countryfolk, where any slight delay or stumble in severing ourselves from this massively beneficial coalition of countries is a matter of the EU not “playing ball” or otherwise refusing to bow to our unquestionable superiority.

The saddest part of all of this is that we are denying ourselves opportunities to be broader in mind and horizon. To have better functioning brains that serve us well for longer. Above all we deny ourselves the metaphorical passport of international communication, and of knowing and understanding more. By failing to support foreign languages in our education system our government has failed us and our children hugely. Not just in their potential stunting of our children’s intellectual development, but in the narrowing of our collective minds and opportunities. It is a basic fact that humans fear what is unknown or alien to them, what better way to reduce that fear than to give someone the gift of communicating across borders and boundaries?

It has never been easier to learn another language than now. Go to your local library and borrow some Berlitz language packages – or download Duolingo or MosaLingua (other language products are available) and get playing on your phone. Second language acquisition has benefits whenever you learn, so it is never too late. It may be slightly more difficult to learn another language after the age of 15 than before, but that is true of almost any new skill. Unlike learning to play your next console game, learning a new language will enhance your cognitive skills, broaden your horizons, teach you about others’ cultures, and maybe – if enough people do it – it may make our country a little bit better too.

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