Science Questions

What are the pros and cons of being raised bilingually?

Mon, 3rd Oct 2016

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Lucille asked:

What are the pros and cons of being raised bilingually?


We put Lucille's question to neuroscientists Heidi Solberg ōkland... Translate hello

Heidi - I think there are lots of advantages to being raised bilingually. Iím a bilingual myself. I was born and raised in Norway but I learned English in school and now Iím a Norwegian English bilingual.

But imagine if I was born in England and I had an English dad say, then I would be able to talk to my family members. If I knew Norwegian I would be able to visit Norway to talk to people, to engage with that culture. I would be able to work there. I couldnít really do my work now if I didnít know English I couldnít be doing science. These are things that are kind of a bit more common sense.

But if we think about what the disadvantages and advantages is in terms of the brain. For you Chris - you're a monolingual English speaker?

Chris - Yes.

Heidi - So if you think of a thing that you usually put on bread. Itís usually made of fruit or berries and sugar - what would you call that?

Chris - Jam.

Heidi - Jam, exactly. So you just have one word for that thing. So in your brain, when you think about that concept, if you want to say what that concept is then you say jam and thatís it, thatís easy. For me, if I think about this thing, I have to choose been two different words. So I could either say ďJamĒ or I could say ďsyltetÝy,Ē which is the Norwegian equivalent of that. So we know that actually when I was speaking English, my Norwegian is still running in the background so this creates some kind of a conflict, interferenceÖ

Chris - Conflict, yeah. Is there a latency effect as in if I record how quickly I get the word for jam and how quickly you get the word for jam. The more languages you learn if youíve got to pick through more, does it take longer for your brain to sort through and say right, I need the English one?

Heidi - I would think yes, but I would have to go and l look that up. But I do think that thatís the case. And also, what happens is - well this is something I notice a lot of the time - is I find it more difficult sometimes to think of the words. I have the word at the tip of my tongue but I canít access it.

Chris - What language do you dream in?

Heidi - Since I live in Cambridge now and Iím speaking English all the time, I probably dream a bit in English as well.

Chris - With what accent? No itís funny because this person wrote to us and said he downloaded, from America, the entire back catalogue of the Naked Scientist and weíve got something like a thousand episodes of the programme now. And he said he did the podcast equivalent of a binge - sort of doing many episodes per day -  and he said I knew Iíd overdone it when I began to dream with an English accent. So I just wondered ifÖ?

Heidi - Well, given that Iím mostly using the British accent when Iím speaking in English, I probably would dream in a British accent.

Chris - Jolly good!

Heidi - Yeah, jolly good.


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