Language assets, not limited proficiency

You have probably heard the joke:

What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Tri-lingual.
What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bi-lingual.
What do you call someone who speaks one language? American.

Although a joke, it elicits serious questions about whether United States residents, on average, fall below par on multi-lingual ability. It also perhaps relates to the perception that we Americans less often carry a passport than do the people of most other developed countries.

At a meeting this morning with government, foundation, and business leaders, Mayor RT Rybak asked: “Shouldn’t we start to view multi-lingual competency as an asset, rather than a deficit?” A child who speaks a language other than English may need a few years to master the English language. However, the Mayor wondered out loud, once having learned English, doesn’t this child and similar others offer our region some competitive advantages within the globalized economy in which we live?

Greater language facility means greater capacity to understand foreign markets, more ability to communicate with customers in different countries. It means that we can work more efficiently, with fewer errors and greater productivity, in endeavors that require collaboration among people on different parts of the globe.

Speaking two languages, some research suggests, can enhance the “executive function” of children’s brains – that is, the higher level abilities that influence other critical processes such as attention, memory, and motor skills. Executive function enables human beings to initiate and stop actions, to plan for the future, to adapt behavior to changing circumstances, and to form concepts and think abstractly.

Research has shown that students who speak two languages can more accurately solve problems involving misleading cues. In addition, research has indicated that people who know how to use multiple languages, and therefore must manipulate their minds to bring one language to the fore, depending on the situation, develop skills that can support other mental processes and social interaction. Evidence suggests that they can better resolve conflicts; they can more perceptively monitor their environment. A recent study in the Journal of Neuroscience even suggests that speaking two languages might prevent Alzheimer’s and other age-related declines in “neural efficiency for cognitive control processes.”

So, the Mayor may have some good insight. Perhaps all of us should pick up another language, if we want to stay healthy and live longer. And, we should appreciate the collective potential of a multi-lingual Twin Cities, as we move forward in the twenty-first century.

I once printed as many words as I could find in a couple of hours one morning, for the word “peace.” I will print them again:

Paix (French)
Paz (Spanish)
Frieden (German)
ειρήνη (Greek)
和平 (Chinese)
Vrede (Dutch)
Vrede (Afrikaans)
Pace (Italian)
平和 (Japanese)
평화 (Korean)
Paz (Portuguese)
мир (Russian)
أمان (طمأنينة) (Arabic)
Mir (Croatian)
ukuthula (Zulu)
àlàáfíà (Yoruba)
kev sib haum xeeb (Hmong)
nabad (Somali)

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Paul Mattessich's picture
Paul Mattessich

Paul Mattessich became executive director of Wilder Research in 1982and has served as a member of the Wilder Foundation's senior leadership team since then.