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Festival of Social Sciences: 2 languages: 2 brains, 2 minds, 2 cultures?

by Louise McCudden

As part of the ESRC Festival of Social Sciences, the Deafness Cognition And Language Research Centre (DCAL) hosted an event exploring the powerful benefits of bilingualism in spoken and sign languages, for hearing and deaf people alike.   

Antonella Sorace from Bilingualism Matters and the University of Edinburgh opens up the event with a very detailed explanation of how being raised bilingual is beneficial to kids, and how best to go about raising a child this way.

One of the most interesting things that Ms Sorace notes is that as much as it’s probably fair to say that most people today (certainly most Brits) are used to having one ‘mother tongue,’ prehistoric studies actually tell us that the natural linguistic state for homo sapiens is to be bilingual. Rather than bilingualism being some unnatural fad of our times, which gets unhelpfully forced on multicultural children, as Sorace says some critics try to argue, the standard monolingual approach to life could actually be seen as denying our brains the chance to meet their fullest capabilities. And not just in linguistic terms, either.

According to the latest research by Bilingualism Matters, our brains not only are fully able to cope with two languages from birth, but a brain which adapts from an early age to two different ‘mother tongues’ actually performs better in all sorts of other ways, too, having a potentially huge impact on that child’s life chances.

Even before these intellectual and emotional advantages kick in, there are very obvious ways that you’d expect bilingualism to impact on your life chances. Numerous employment, travel, literary, friendship and relationship opportunities become available as a result of fluency in multiple languages. And evidence that learning two different languages helps children grow up to be more culturally tolerant is welcome - but not likely to surprise many people.

But these things, according to the research by Bilingualism Matters, are just the beginning.

For example, Ms Sorace explains, Bilingual Matters have been able to prove, using specially-designed tests, that children, even babies, can distinguish between different the sounds of different languages. While it’s perhaps not surprising that, say, Russian and French would sound different even to a baby’s ear, Bilingual Matters tested even extremely similar-sounding languages, like Spanish and Catalan – which even some adults confuse – and found that even with those languages, bilingual babies as young as 8 months old can tell the different sounds apart.

This isn’t just evidence of the brain’s pre-existing capabilities in terms of processing languages; the research shows us that the bilingual experience itself for a baby or toddler has an enormously positive impact on those capabilities.

One of the case studies that Sorace explained to us centers around the connection between words, and what the words represent to us. Most children attach a word to a meaning, and then struggle to grasp that, say, a picture of a dog is correctly identified as a dog, but it can also be correctly identified as a pet, or an animal, and so on. But bilingual children (for obvious reasons) are comfortable with this fluidity in language almost as soon as they learn to label things.

With language being a tool we use for thinking and processing emotion as well as for communicating and working, it’s easy to see why bilingual children have such notably better executive functioning, concentration, and tolerance than their monolingual peers.

And this realisation leads us beautifully into the next speaker, Robert Adam from The Deafness Cognition And Language Research Centre (DCAL) and UCL, who presented his own original research into the differences between Irish Sign Language and British Sign Language. If anyone imagines hearing two different languages to be a challenge, think about deaf children with two different parents signing in different languages! (Let alone a hearing person trying to follow a signed discussion between two different sign languages with simultaneous translation.)

Or so you might expect. But while Mr Adam was signing his presentation (with such energy and charisma that I know I wasn’t the only hearing person to forget to pay attention to the translator as well as the signing…), an exciting thing happened. Listening to – or rather watching - passionate questions, disagreements, and even the occasional heckle, all in sign language, made hearing people in the audience realise that just as bilingualism in spoken languages increases the capacity for self-expression, so the ability to sign emotions facilitates levels of expression that do not always make sense within the rigidity of simple words.

If you don’t believe me, you should really take a few minutes out of your day to check out the work of the Life and Deaf Association, represented at the Festival of Social Sciences by SALT specialist Jane Thomas.

When Hayley McWilliams, a fifteen year old deaf poet, performed her work in sign language to the room, the sign language wasn’t a substitute for spoken language, and the sign language did not seem like a mitigating tool to compensate for a disability.

Of course, the poem was translated for people who don’t know sign language, and the literal meaning of the words did undeniably carry a certain power. But it was translated after Hayley’s own performance, rather than the simultaneous translations that lecturers and members of the audience had used so far, and even for those of us who didn’t understand the exact literal translation of each sign, it’s no contest as to which is the most emotive, most evocative, most communicative performance.

So even though sign language has been used as a tool to manage a disability, is there an argument of socially scientific validity to be made that it can be seen - and taught - as more of a language in its own right?

This seems to be the logic behind Mar Perez’s new special school in Madrid. Ms Perez’s talk, incidentally, provided a practical taster of bilingualism in all its glory, with Perez giving her talk about the school in Spanish, which was then translated into English by a hearing translator, for his English to then be translated simultaneously into British Sign Language by a sign language translator. (Yes that is as exhausting to follow as it sounds; but a wonderfully rich experience, too.)

Ms Perez, who works for Special Education Services in Madrid, explained how classes at her school are taught both in sign language, and also spoken language. Hearing kids love the school as well as deaf kids, and judging by the short film Ms Perez showed at the event, they all play together, work together, and share each other’s lives naturally, because they share, as far as is possible, the same learning experiences.

This is the kind of social project that was set up with the aim of helping a specific minority group (the deaf community) but has clear benefits for everybody else as well.

The educational benefits for deaf people in an entirely academic sense, admits Ms Perez, are not actually exceptional. The exam results for deaf kids at these special schools are about the same on average as the results at other schools. But the real difference will surely come later in life, in the form of social benefits, and the advantages in employment that can happen as a result of better integration?

And there are, as this very event exemplified perfectly, enormous benefits in understanding sign languages for hearing people, too.

Just as a bilingual child’s ability to interpret and discuss the world is broader than a monolingual child’s, so the ability to communicate through sign language as well as spoken word may well do the same for the rest of society.

The fact is that language goes far beyond academic success or any other “practical” usage, which sometimes makes the immediate value of this kind of research hard to quantify. Yet language is what shapes our emotional landscape, our wellbeing, our ability to reason, and our ability to understand each other. It is the reason we can communicate, access to an escape from pain; it is the way we make sense of life.

We cannot articulate a fact or opinion or emotion to ourselves, let alone express it to others, if we don’t know the word or symbol for it. And, as Hayley McWilliams’ powerful performance poetry showed us, sometimes the words we have in our every day vocabulary just aren’t enough. The more means of communication we all have at our fingertips, the better it is for everyone.

DCAL’s event at the Festival of Social Sciences focused on specific minority groups, and that is where the need for more research in the short-term is, of course, greatest. But don’t imagine that the long-term benefits are limited to any small particular group. As is so often the case with social sciences, the long-term benefits of this kind of work are abundantly available to us all.

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