Tuesday Trends: Are ‘Bilinguals Smarter?
By MARCUS MABRY | March 19, 2012, 6:30 AM
PARIS — Of course, we already knew this, those of us who are bilingual: We are smarter than other people.
Still, it was nice to have an article in The New York Times Sunday Reviewconfirm it:
“Being bilingual, it turns out, makes you smarter. It can have a profound effect on your brain, improving cognitive skills not related to language and even shielding against dementia in old age,” Yudhijit Bhattacharjee wrote.
“The collective evidence from a number of such studies suggests that the bilingual experience improves the brain’s so-called executive function — a command system that directs the attention processes that we use for planning, solving problems and performing various other mentally demanding tasks.”
An article in August 2010 quoted Ellen Bialystok, a noted neuroscientist and the author of “Bilingualism in Development: Language, Literacy and Cognition,” stating bluntly that bilingualism “doesn’t make kids smarter.”
“There are documented cognitive developments,” she said, “but whatever smarter means, it isn’t true.”
I choose to believe Yudhijit because my children have had a Mandarin-speaking nanny since they were four months old, even though neither I nor my partner — both Americans — speak Chinese.
And I have only spoken French to the children since they were born, though I’m from New Jersey.
Let me explain.
I never actually thought my children’s being multilingual would make them smarter. (And I’m still not sure. Like Dr. Bialystok, I think there are a lot of ways to measure “smart.”)
But long before I had children I decided that they would speak a foreign language if I had anything to do with it.
For me, it just made sense in our globalized world. From a purely practical point of view, by the time my children graduate from high school, China will probably have the largest economy in the world. (When I told DealBookeditor at large Andrew Ross Sorkin my reasoning, he looked into getting his kids a Chinese nanny, too.) We are not alone among New Yorkers — or even Americans!
I once tried to embark on learning Chinese, but one course in college taught me how unlikely that dream was. On the other hand, experts said that if my children heard Chinese all their lives (and we will immerse them in it whenever and wherever we can), then there was an excellent chance that they would speak the language.
The other reason I wanted my children to speak another language, or two, was the joy I took from becoming fluent in French. As a poor kid from Trenton, learning French changed my life.
But whatever your background, or language, the benefits of speaking more than one are obvious. You have to do nothing more than read “La Peste,” Albert Camus’s novel, “The Plague,” in English translation and read it in the original to see that what is lost in translation: everything.
Or ride a Paris subway, or fight with a French cab driver, or any number of other pursuits, and you will find that they are far finer when done in the original.
I wanted my children to have those gifts: the gift of the author’s original words, and the gift of communication and understanding across geographic borders.
Of course, I always say, “Le français c’est pour s’amuser, le chinois c’est pour travailler.” French is for fun, Chinese is for work.
The odds are, that will be the reality of the global economy in the middle of the 21st century, where my children will work.
But — right now at least — I can honestly say it doesn’t matter to me if my one of children uses his Chinese to become a busker in the Shanghai subway or the C.E.O. of a multinational corporation. Though, I suppose this may change . . .
Likewise, I assume there are many Mandarin speakers who would say there is just as much fun to be had in Chinese as there is in French.
What do you think? Are bilinguals “smarter,” and what does that mean? How are you handling raising multilingual children? And are there drawbacks as well as benefits?