Bilingualism and Multilingualism: Languages Reinforce One Another

Bilingualism and Multilingualism: Languages Reinforce One Another

15 Apr 2022

Bilingualism and Multilingualism: Languages Reinforce One Another

With the spread of globalization and people moving around for a multitude of reasons including work, travel and education, the advantages of being bilingual and multilingual are becoming increasingly apparent. In the past, it was believed that early bilingualism might delay the acquisition of the mother tongue (L1) or even interfere with the process of L1 acquisition. Nowadays, it is commonly accepted that learning second and additional languages is to the favor of the cognitive, social, psychological, linguistic and cultural growth of the language learner - as well as the development of their immediate community and larger society. 

Language acquisition in context

According to Mitchell, Myles and Marsden in their book “Second Language Learning Theories”, some linguists (largely innatists) argue that human beings are endowed with a language faculty, namely the Language Acquisition Device (LAD), which is responsible for acquiring and generating language. 

These linguists contend that LAD contains the core human language, i.e. the common features of all languages or what is called the deep structure of language. Universal Grammar (UG), as a linguistic theory of language competence, intends to describe humans’ knowledge of language, i.e. what all human languages have in common and what it is that makes them different from one another. Universalists claim that UG consists of a set of principles (the deep structure) which do not vary from one language to another. Some of these linguists also argue that second language (L2) learners have full access to all the parameters set in L1, and either reset them while learning L2 or transfer them from their L1 to L2.

In support of translanguaging

In a similar vein, some proponents of the translanguaging theory argue that we have access to one linguistic repertoire from which we can draw as a resource when learning and speaking two or more languages. In other words, although language interference can happen to L2 learners, the advantages of knowing two or more languages outweigh any possible disadvantages and can help with learning further languages. The authors of “Pedagogical Translanguaging”, Cenoz and Gorter, suggest that translanguaging goes against the idea “that students can become confused if they are exposed to more than one language at a time and that the ideal situation occurs when the school organization reinforces separation by having different teachers for each language and a strict differentiation in the allocation of spaces and times for each language.” 

Instead, Cenoz and Gorter argue that “languages can reinforce each other, and prior linguistic knowledge is an advantage that can be used in the classroom … Multilingual speakers can be more effective learners and users of a target language if they are allowed to use resources from their whole linguistic repertoire … When learning a new language, multilinguals tend naturally to use the resources they have in their multilingual repertoire.” Cenoz and Gorter also point out that languages are friends, not foes, and as such they empower the language learner in learning more languages. 

Adaptive language learning

By the same token, Trautner, in “Advantages of a Bilingual Brain”, states that L2 learning does not have an adverse effect on L1 and L1 acquisition, but indeed helps with the language learner’s cognitive flexibility, problem solving abilities, memory span and concentration. In addition to the fact that languages can reinforce each other when one learns more than one language, bilingualism and multilingualism can also enhance one’s communication skills, employability, outward mobility, cultural and intercultural awareness, self-esteem and empathy. Further to the benefits of bilingualism and multilingualism for individuals, it also offers familial and societal rewards including “improving communication among family members, enhancing emotional bonds among siblings, boosting the family’s sense of cultural identity and belonging, getting a better appreciation of different languages and cultures, and travelling and working in different countries and cultures”, according to “The Australian Parenting Website”. Hence, bilingualism and multilingualism are nowadays considered a worldwide norm rather than an exception, argues the research team of Yip, Blumenfeld, and Cieslicka in a 2021 editorial, ‘Bilingual and Multilingual Spoken-Word Recognition: Empirical and Theoretical Perspectives’. Let’s encourage our children, siblings, relatives, friends and colleagues to learn an L2, L3 and even more.  

Dr. Nima Nazari is the Director of the Language Centre and TISD Adjunct Professor of Applied Linguistics at the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, part of Hamad Bin Khalifa University.

This article is submitted on behalf of the author by the HBKU Communications Directorate. The views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the University’s official stance.