2    Jun 20114 comments

Languages: More are better!

Genealogists often lament the fact that immigrant ancestors did not pass on their native languages to their descendants.While the children of immigrants were mostly fluent in those languages - the first generation - those children only rarely passed down those languages to their own children or grandchildren - thus losing them forever.

Years ago, as I sat struggling through Cyrillic to understand records from Mogilev, Belarus, I often wished my great-grandparents had passed down Russian and Yiddish. Russian seems to have disappeared the day the family hit the streets of New York, while Yiddish was transmitted to their children. Their grandchildren knew only phrases or could understand some but not speak it, and they only rarely could read it.

How much easier it would have been if I had learned both languages fluently from my parents and grandparents! However, I did learn Farsi fluently when we lived in Iran. Our daughter studied it, used to read and write it, understands it nearly fluently, but refuses to speak it.

Now, through one scientist's research, we learn that there are two major reasons that people should pass their heritage language on to their children.

One reason is obvious to family history researchers:

  • It connects children to their ancestors.
  • The research indicates that bilingualism is good for you. It makes brains stronger, as it is brain exercise.

There is a definite advantage to being bilingual - and, we assume, trilingual or more - as indicated in this New York Times story, "The Bilingual Advantage."

A cognitive neuroscientist, Dr. Ellen Bialystok, 62, has spent almost 40 years learning about how bilingualism sharpens the mind. Her good news: Among other benefits, the regular use of two languages appears to delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease symptoms.

Bialystok is a distinguished research professor of psychology at York University (Toronto, Canada) and received a $100,000 Killam Prize last year for her contributions to social science.

Here are some highlights of the interview, but read the complete story at the link above to understand how technology has helped the professor in her research.

Q. How does this work — do you understand it?

A. Yes. There’s a system in your brain, the executive control system. It’s a general manager. Its job is to keep you focused on what is relevant, while ignoring distractions. It’s what makes it possible for you to hold two different things in your mind at one time and switch between them.

If you have two languages and you use them regularly, the way the brain’s networks work is that every time you speak, both languages pop up and the executive control system has to sort through everything and attend to what’s relevant in the moment. Therefore the bilinguals use that system more, and it’s that regular use that makes that system more efficient.

According to her research, using two languages all the time also helps ward off Alzheimer's disease.

Is a smattering of high school French enough? No, says Bialystok. You need to use "both languages all the time. You won’t get the bilingual benefit from occasional use."

Biligualism also helps with mutitasking. Bialystock's team wondered, “Are bilinguals better at multitasking?” 

They put monolinguals and bilinguals into a driving simulator and gave them - through headphones - extra tasks to do As tasks were added, everyone's driving got worse. But the bilinguals did better than the others as they could concentrate on a problem. However, they are not advising that bilinguals text while they drive.

For those of a technical frame of mind, do read the section on new neuroimaging technologies that helped in this research. In the old days, scientists could only see the parts of the brain used in specific tasks. New technology means they can see how the different parts work together in tasks.

Bilinguals seem to solve problems faster than monolinguals. It seems the bilinguals are using a different kind of network to solve those problems. Says Bialystok, "Their whole brain appears to rewire because of bilingualism."

In the US - until about the 1960s - parents were advised not to speak their native languages to their children as it could confuse them. That has changed and bilingualism is no longer considered a negative point.

And what about today's immigrants?

Bialystok says people ask her about teaching languages to their children. She answers, "You’re sitting on a potential gift."

Read the complete story at the link above.

[NOTE: For another article just found for for those interested in more on bilingualism, here's a link to an article by a University of Kansas researcher, titled "Is being bilingual a no-brainer?"]

Are you bilingual? What languages do you speak? Has it helped you?  Or not? We are really interested in hearing from readers, so please post your comments below.

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Comments (4) Trackbacks (0)
  1. It's also easier to learn a second language as a child. It gets written to a different part of your brain when you are young so it's easier to learn than when you learn as an adult. I didn't see that mentioned in this article.

    I wished I'd learned more languages when I was younger. I've always been good at languages but I'm sure it would have been easier then. My parents only spoke English. I'm glad I learned to read Hebrew young, but I never really learned how to speak it. Growing up in Miami, I was encouraged to learn Spanish, but the classes were too slow for me and I never stuck them out.

    I think some of my cousins born in the US know Russian and Yiddish, at least partially, considering what I've seen some of them share on Facebook. They're closer to the immigrants in the family, so I guess some of it has been passed on.
  2. Hi, Banai - thanks for commenting.

    I do believe that whatever we learn - including keeping up with all the new resources in genealogy - keeps our brains active. "Learning mode" keeps our brains from rusting. When we find something we love to do - like genealogy and family history research - we are more likely to pick up the skills we need to do just that.

    I've known 10-year-olds in other countries who picked up fluent Spanish and English from the television shows they loved. Their parents didn't even know the kids knew those languages until in social situations where they had to use those languages on their own. The brain is a rather amazing thing.

    You are definitely right, it is much easier to learn other languages as a child. Our cousins in Switzerland are all fluent in French, Italian, German and English, learned at early ages in school. When my daughter (armed only with native English, school Spanish and understanding Farsi) went there, she felt like a fish out of water and finally understood why it is great to be fluent in more than one language.

    I had studied Spanish in school for many years, but didn't have an opportunity to speak it. Therefore, although I read it nearly fluently, speaking is something else. My tongue doesn't seem to be connected to my brain!!! I wish my spoken abilities in other languages were better. Immersion helps in these cases, and I'd like to go off and live in Spain for a year to fix this problem, short visits aren't enough time.

    In my early 20s, I learned Farsi fluently in only a few months when we lived in Teheran. I was rather amazed myself to do that, I have kept it up since then, and consider it my second language. Decades later, I was forced to learn to read Cyrillic to access Belarus and other FSU records. I read Hebrew and Yiddish, but speaking them is a different matter!

    Immersion, in my experience, is the best method for learning a language fluently, as I did in Iran. A simple matter of sink or swim.

  3. Thanks Schelly. Very interesting article!
  4. Hi, Suzanne - great to hear from you. Your comment is appreciated!

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