What are the pros and cons of being raised bilingually?

04 October 2016

Question

What are the pros and cons of being raised bilingually?

Answer

We put Lucille's question to neuroscientists Heidi Solberg Ã~kland... Heidi - I think there are lots of advantages to being raised bilingually. I'm a bilingual myself. I was born and raised in Norway but I learned English in school and now I'm 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 couldn't really do my work now if I didn't know English I couldn't 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. It's 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 that's it, that's easy. For me, if I think about this thing, I have to choose been two different words. So I could either say "Jam" or I could say "syltetøy," 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, interference.

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 you've 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 that's 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 can't access it.

Chris - What language do you dream in?

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

Chris - With what accent? No it's funny because this person wrote to us and said he downloaded, from America, the entire back catalogue of the Naked Scientist and we've 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 I'd overdone it when I began to dream with an English accent. So I just wondered if.?

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

Chris - Jolly good!

Heidi - Yeah, jolly good.

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