Time magazine recently had an article by Jeffrey Kluger which explained why bi-lingualism has a profound impact on the development of the brain. (See http://healthland.time.com/2013/04/23/bilingualism/) Kluger noted that the child is a “crude linguist from the moment of birth—and perhaps even in the womb—as he/she can begin to recognize sound patterns and to make sense out of them producing what we first hear as ‘babble.’” This “babble” is gradually refined into a language depending on what parts of the “babble” are reinforced by the parents and others in his social world. Kluger used the example of “dog-chien” for children born into one bi-lingual family, as a child in that family will discover that two different terms from what will come to be learned as two different languages are available to refer to the same object. The child can learn to “toggle” between the two different words to describe the same object and in so doing learn nimbleness in reference to language. And this “nimbleness” will be learned at a time when “neurological plasticity” is present, meaning that it is a skill that can be learned and can stay with the child for his/her lifetime. This is significant because the child can learn to apply this “nimbleness” to the whole of his/her world and see things in less rigid ways.
Kluger also cites research by Sean Lynch that multilingual kids may exhibit social empathy sooner than children who have been exposed to only one language. Lynch noted, “The theory of mind—understanding that what’s in your head is not the same as what’s in other people’s heads–does not emerge in children until they are about three years old. Prior to that, they assume that if, say, they know a secret you probably do too. There is a kind of primal narcissism in this—a belief that their worldview is the universal one.” Lynch argues that being exposed to more than one language is very helpful in facilitating a child’s ability to forego that initial self-centeredness and learn that there are other ways of looking at the world.
I found his observation about “primal narcissism” describing the belief that your world view is the universal world view very interesting in light of our own culture. For example, even the stalemate between liberals and conservatives reflects this “primal narcissism” when elements of both belief-systems fail to understand that the other side can have a viewpoint which is worthy of respect.
I’d like to conclude with my own story of discovering a second language and how novel the experience was. When I was only six or seven years of age “French” came to the public schools in “Smallville”, Arkansas in the early ‘60’s. I found it so interesting to learn that somewhere else in the world a dog was called a “chien” or a boy a “garcon” that a father was “pere” or that an apple was a “pom.” This created in my heart even then a rudimentary notion of “difference” which continues to be a compelling interest of mine five decades later. And then one day I learned a particular expression which really nailed the phenomena down for me when I learned that when the French refer to having “goose-bumps”, they say, “I have the skin of a chicken. (avoir la chaire de poule) My little mind was at first puzzled, asking, “Well, why don’t they just use the term “goose-bumps”? “Difference” then sunk in on in some rudimentary fashion, though it would be decades before the true significance of “difference” overcome the rigid conservatism of my upbringing.
In my present employment as an occasional substitute teacher with younger elementary children, I am pleased to note that even in the conservative region of Northwest Arkansas the schools give daily attention to the prevalence of Hispanic and Marshallese children, frequently using terms and even little ditties from each of these languages. This must have a positive impact on the development of these little minds. One caveat should be noted, however. This multi-lingualism helps but it alone will not overcome other pressures in local culture, or in any culture, to maintain that “primal narcissism”.