Bilingualism will supercharge your brain or is it that easy?

by , under All categories, Enrique

By Enrique Tessieri

My blood pressure rises every time I hear people state nonchalantly that travelling enriches. If this were the case, why are some societies hostile to some people like immigrants who are growing up in two or more cultures? I was brought up in three national cultures and spoke three languages as a child.

I learned, however, at an early age in Finland and in middle-class Los Angeles that it’s advisable to keep your Otherness at bay. It’s better to fit in rather than to stand out.

This link will take you to an interesting article and video clip on the benefits of bilingualism. What is it and what life-long benefits can a child get when he or she learns at least two languages? Princeton Neuroscientist Sam Wang, co-author of “Welcome to Your Child’s Brain,” claims that bilingualism will supercharge your baby’s brain.

Wang states: “…the benefits of bilingualism go far beyond the ability to order convincingly at Maxim’s in Paris, or to read Dostoevsky in the original. Bilingual toddlers have an improved ability to resolve ‘conflict cues.’ In other words, their minds are more flexible – better able to unlearn previously learned rules in light of new, conflicting information.”

Even though it is clear that speaking more than one language can “supercharge” a child in many ways, a lot depends as well on how society sees diversity.

My three national cultures and languages, which lived inside of me as one whole, appeared to be in harmony with the outside world until I went to catholic school.

One afternoon the history teacher gave us one of those  usual “America-is-great-and-communism-is-evil speeches.” Since I had lived in three countries before moving to Los Angeles and traveled every year to Finland to visit my grandparents, I naturally had a different take of the world than the history teacher never mind my classmates.

At the age of thirteen and in eight grade I was still too young to have a defined political ideology.

I raised my hand after the teacher told the class that  all of the Russians would flee the Soviet Union if they let them move out of the country.

The teacher and class listened attentively to my candid question: “If the Russians have never visited any countries outside of their own, don’t you think that they consider their country the best in the world?”

My question caused a knee-jerk reaction from the teacher. His glance at me turned hostile. He asked pointblank if I were a communist. “If you don’t like America,” he continued in an enraged voice, “go and live in Moscow!”

He expelled me from the room and grabbed my attaché case and threw it out of the door.

On the brighter side of things, I consider myself fortunate to have grown up in three national cultures.

My advice to those that are growing up in two or more cultures is what a Multicultural Finn told my students this fall: “The first important step is accepting yourself. Extend your hand of friendship if possible to those that may loathe you.”

Those wise words once changed the United States in the 1950s and 1960s during the Civil Rights movement. Martin Luther King said back then: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

  1. Seppo

    Languages are great. The more you know the better.

    In many countries, where larger scale immigration started earlier, the first generations of immigrants were encouraged to give up their own language(s) and in stead shift entirely to the language(s) of the new country. This had been the attitude and policy towards older linguistic minorities as well.

    I hope that in Finland the different immigrant communities are able to maintain their languages. Children are the key here. They need to be encourage to learn, in addition to Finnish, their home languages. And not just speaking but also reading and writing. Children with some other language than Finnish or Swedish as their mother tongue are entitled to mother tongue classes during the school week. In practice this does not always work very well and therefore more attention, an I guess also money, should be put into it.

  2. Mary Mekko

    Perhaps not every single Russian would stomp out and leave, but a good many would have, and that has been shown by the Russian Jewish exodus since the 1970’s. All others except Pentecostals, who could also claim “persecution”, were forced to stay. I visited Russia three times in the 1980’s and can assure you that that teacher of yours was not far off. The only thing holding them back would be fear of the unknown, the lack of money, the lack of language skills. In other words, just plain fear is at the basis of fleeing a bad situation, that old “out of the frying pan into the fire”. Talk to the Russian immigrants, who abound in the SF Bay Area, and hear how glad that they are about leaving, especially for economic reasons, but for all general reasons, to do with personal freedom and spiritual freedom.

    You are also contested in your view by the post-war European DP camps, where hundreds of thousands fleeing Communism in Poland, Ukraine, the Baltics and Russia fled while the going was good. They were not afraid of Nazism but collectivization, forced labor, no religious rights, and all the other ills of Communism. Today Venezuelans are also fleeing from Chavez’ regime. Cubans pile on to boats and die in the ocean rather than remain under Communism.

    Why, Enrique, were you at such a young age a defender of Communism? What in it appealed to you or your parents?

    • Enrique

      Mary Mekko, I was never a Communist nor have I ever considered myself one. So you think the history teacher’s reaction was correct? Oy vey!

  3. eyeopener

    Dear Seppo.

    Your contribution here sounds far more reasonable than the other ones on different issues. Like I have mentioned there also that learning to speak the language is an asset to UNDERSTAND the environment in which somebody chooses to life. It doesnot contribute PERSE to integration. Maybe multiculturalism is the “competitive advantage” of a specific country. Never thought of that point of view??

    I live in a part of Finland where the original culture -the Sami culture- is still seen by many people as a backward notion. Like the Indian culture in America and…..and…. I myself was borne into the Friesian culture, with its own language, culture items etc. Only in the 80s the Friesian language was heralded by the EU as an unique example of originality.

    I grew up as a bilingual kid in his home country. Quite frustrated but not angry. Now I am a multi-lingual adult. Happy as I can be in understanding the differences between cultures but not always willing to integrate PERSE.

    I do understand Finnish laws, customs, values, rules and regulations perfectly well. However, I am not a Finn and I never will be one!!

    Let’s continue this talk!!

  4. eyeopener

    Dear Mary Mekko.

    Do you have a problem with capitalism?? Or globalization?? No, why not?? I am asking this because you seem to have a lot against Communism and its economic, social and physical conditions.

    You seem to forget that capitalism has as many negative aspects as you see in Communism. My Brain-Drain contributions discusses the fleeing behavior of people who are chasing even better conditions than the ones delivered in their home countries.

    From Cuba and nowadays Venezuela, Colombia, Equador people are fleeing because they can’t expliot their previous freedoms anymore. Because of Communism or whatever you want to call it!!.

    People who embrassed Nazism were not afraid?? How do you know?? The Baltic States, Poland, the Ukraine and so on have an awful reputation when dealing with “dissident” people, especially Jews.

    The first ones to flee these countries were the “robber barons” or “oligarchs”. Happy to leave the country. Indeed!! Working class people do not have the money to flee the country. Moreover they are more proud of their country than you want to believe!!

    Are you??

  5. Seppo

    “that has been shown by the Russian Jewish exodus since the 1970′s”

    Russian Jews emigrated because of anti-semitism. They continued to move out of Russia after the collapse of communism so that there are almost none left. Russians, however, did not emigrate in great numbers even though their living standards actually went down after the collapse.

  6. Laputis

    Dear Enrique,

    I am multilingual too, I have spoken two or three languages as my native languages, I also have lived in three countries, but it seems I have opposite opinions about immigration or multiculturalism than you do. I think that you lack of deeper insight into many things.

    You say that many people have claimed that travelling enrich people. I agree with these people. And I think that you lack one important point in understanding why travelling enriches – it is because you travel to places different than yours. If places would be same as your place, how would travelling to those places enrich you? And do you know what, the places are different because they have something different, unique than in your place. There is such thing as diversity. Diversity of nature, cultures etc. It’s good that Finland is majority Finnish, it makes Finland different from f.e. USA. The USA has many immigrants, Finland has little amount of immigrants, It is already one of signs of diversity. Finnish official language is Finnish, USA official language is English. Another sign of diversity. But, if Finland had as many immigrants from all corners from world just like USA has, the difference between Finland and USA would decrease, thus would be less diversity there. If Finland accepted English language as, let’s say, second official state language, again that would mean less diversity.
    Would be for an American tourist more interesting travel to such Finland, which is more different from USA, or more similar to USA? What do you think?

    • Enrique

      –And I think that you lack one important point in understanding why travelling enriches – it is because you travel to places different than yours.

      Did I say this? I said travelling and seeing new things can get you into a lot of problems with your peers because you see things differently than them. Are Argentina, Southern California and rural Mikkeli so similar? I don’t think so, especially in the 1960s and 1970s. All three of them speak different languages to start with and had different political systems with different histories.

  7. Hannu

    And having different skin colour can get you in trouble with Enrigue who thinks culture is genetic. How you dare to NOT cherish your “add culture what i decide you have to have”! Enrique also thinks nothing is inherited by genetic.
    Enrique also wants “zoos” of cultures in near of him so he can go and say “aah im tolerant” and then come back to safe finnish culture.
    Who i am to judge….

    • Enrique

      Ok Hannu nice try. Multiculturalism may not be a wise word these days since it means different things for different people. It raises passions etc. But I think out of all the definitions, the one that states that it is apartheid is the most ridiculous. Another funny interpretation by the far right is that it is linked with communism. NOT.

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