English Vinglish

Be­ing bilin­gual al­ters the brain's ar­chi­tec­ture, mak­ing the ex­ec­u­tive func­tions more ef­fi­cient


LAN­GUAGE HAS al­ways been a hand­maiden of pol­i­tics, es­pe­cially in the colo­nial world, even more so af­ter it. Lord Macau­lay, for in­stance, de­ployed English as a medium of in­struc­tion in higher ed­u­ca­tion in or­der to colonise the In­dian mind. Post­par­ti­tion, as part of the na­tion-build­ing project, both In­dia and Pak­istan tried to im­pose Hindi and Urdu re­spec­tively on those un­fa­mil­iar with these lan­guages, thereby spark­ing off ri­ots in Sindh, erst­while East Pak­istan and Tamil Nadu. Of late, the bjp-rss rul­ing nexus has once again roused old pas­sions of the tongue by try­ing to foist Hindi on non-Hindi speak­ers.

Apart from the trou­bling ac­knowl­edge­ment that the past of­ten fails to en­lighten the present, one of the en­dur­ing lega­cies of us­ing lan­guage as a tool of state­craft is that most In­di­ans are now at least bilin­guals, us­ing both English (or Hindi) and their re­spec­tive mother tongues. The so­cial ben­e­fits of be­ing able to speak two or more tongues are ob­vi­ous—you get to know other cul­tures and thereby ex­pand your so­cial base. But does it also some­how make the mind more nim­ble, if not more in­tel­li­gent?

For the bet­ter part of the last cen­tury, most sci­en­tists be­lieved that while it was an ad­van­tage for a child to speak two lan­guages, it came at a heavy price. To quote one Dan­ish lin­guist from that pe­riod, “First of all the child hardly learns ei­ther of the two lan­guages as per­fectly as he would have done had he lim­ited him­self to one… Sec­ondly, the brain ef­fort re­quired to mas­ter the two lan­guages in­stead of one cer­tainly di­min­ishes the child’s power of learn­ing other things.”

Since the 1960s, this view has been grad­u­ally eclipsed as many stud­ies found that kids speak­ing more than one lan­guage en­joy what re­searchers call the bilin­gual ad­van­tage. Ap­par­ently it boosts the brain’s ex­ec­u­tive func­tion—an om­nibus word used to de­scribe a med­ley of men­tal fac­ul­ties such as prob­lem-solv­ing abil­ity, mem­ory, com­mu­ni­ca­tion, sus­tained fo­cus, and multi-task­ing. Sig­nif­i­cantly, stud­ies also show that the bilin­gual brain is more re­silient to de­men­tia and Alzheimer’s.

In a much-touted 2004 study, Cana­dian psy­chol­o­gist Ellen Bi­a­lystok put two sets of peo­ple—TamilEnglish bilin­guals from In­dia and English mono­lin­guals from Canada—through a test called the Si­mon task. The idea was to press a key (say right key for red and left for green) as the colour ob­jects flash on a screen. Ex­pect­edly, the re­ac­tion time is faster if the po­si­tion of the keys and ob­jects match (red ob­ject on right half of the screen) than if they don’t (red ob­ject on left).

But to her sur­prise Bi­a­lystok found the bilin­gual In­di­ans were quicker and more ac­cu­rate than the mono­lin­gual Cana­di­ans when the keys and colours were mis­matched. Bi­a­lystok be­lieves that the con­stant switch­ing be­tween two lan­guages al­ters the brain’s ar­chi­tec­ture in ways that some­how make the ex­ec­u­tive func­tion more ef­fi­cient.

Of late, how­ever, some psy­chol­o­gists have chal­lenged the bilin­gual ad­van­tage the­sis. A 2015 re­view of the stud­ies on the sub­ject found that while some stud­ies do show the ef­fect, it is much less univer­sal or com­mon as of­ten claimed.

Iron­i­cally, In­dian re­searchers have paid very lit­tle at­ten­tion to this phe­nom­e­non even though In­dia with its over 400 dis­tinct lan­guages is home to the largest num­ber of mul­ti­lin­guals in the world. We don’t know, for in­stance, if speak­ing three lan­guages, as many In­di­ans do, or the class prej­u­dice against speak­ing English poorly takes away from the bilin­gual ad­van­tage.

Even as sci­en­tists de­bate the va­lid­ity and un­ver­sal­ity of bilin­gual ad­van­tage, the world is well on its way to be­com­ing bilin­gual, thanks mainly to the glob­al­i­sa­tion of English, al­beit sadly, at the ex­pense of many vul­ner­a­ble lan­guages. At any rate, what sur­vives and what doesn’t in what mix will even­tu­ally be de­ter­mined by the com­plex and cease­less in­ter­play be­tween the pol­i­tics of lan­guage and the lan­guage of pol­i­tics.


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