Is it easier to be multilingual than bilingual?


You may have heard that our brains are powerful computers . Although we are capable of processing a lot of information simultaneously, that power would be insufficient in the constant overload of stimuli and information in which we live if it were not for the fact that our minds also do other things very well: predict, adapt, reuse ; do more with less.

The brain builds models of how the world (reality, life, everything) works, just as meteorology builds models of how the weather works. As in weather forecasts, this deep understanding of the world, this meticulous and unconscious record of details allows us to predict what is going to happen, and to anticipate it, even if it is a few thousandths of a second. Go ahead of the information, and not in tow. Sometimes our brain makes mistakes in its predictions: each of these errors is registered and helps to constantly improve our models.

Save and reuse information

Anticipating the dizzying pace of the present is not the only way to save cognitive resources. Learning is a fundamental process in which, through experience, our behavior or our relationship with the environment changes.

In some cases, learning involves recording information in our long-term memory, both data (How much does a liter of milk cost? What law is this administrative management covered by?) and processes (even mechanical, such as setting up by bicycle) to be able to recover it later, when we need it.

But storing that information requires experience, and this in turn requires time. For this reason, reusing information that we already have stored to apply it to a new context is very useful to save effort and time in learning. Our brain does this automatically .

Interferences between languages

There are few better examples of this recycling of prior knowledge than in language learning. Have you noticed that some features of your native Spanish appear when you speak English? Or is it English, your second language, that occasionally creeps in on your attempts to speak German?

These little moments of interference, of which you probably have many examples, are just the tip of an iceberg that we call cross-linguistic influence or language transfer , and that in the vast majority of cases works in your favor.

Tacitly, your brain is efficiently evaluating which parts of your already learned linguistic knowledge can be reused, in order to avoid wasting valuable resources on learning things twice.

Sometimes this will involve comparing the grammars of two languages ​​you already know to find the one that is most useful or applicable to the new language. Other times, you’ll use this background knowledge to direct your attention to the most important parts of a sentence you’re trying to understand.

For example, if the new language functions like English, word order is critical. If it works like Spanish, you will have to pay special attention to the ends of words, where very valuable information is concentrated to understand the meaning of the sentence. Essentially, having experience with other languages ​​allows us to do more with less.

Is each new language easier?

The question almost asks itself. If our linguistic experience influences so much when learning a new language, are better learners those who speak more languages? The answer is complex, and has at least two edges.

The first is that the linguistic background of the speaker and his relationship with the language he is trying to learn matter, and that the proximity between one language and another may be relevant to make the process more or less difficult.

The second is that language learning generates certain strategies and a certain almost automatic way of reflecting on language (what we call metalinguistic knowledge), and that these factors can act as a “muscle” that contributes to shorter or more effective learning processes. .

The bilingual advantage

Various studies have found, for example, that bilingual speakers with the same native language as a group of monolinguals of similar age and characteristics are generally more effective learners of the same language , even at the level of neuronal functioning , or that they are better at incorporating new sounds (phonemes) into their repertoire .

This bilingual advantage in language learning suggests that experience with similar learning processes can be beneficial.

Motivation or predisposition?

It is important to highlight an aspect that somewhat clarifies the above. Multilingual speakers, especially in the case of polyglot enthusiasts who embark on learning a multitude of different languages, often have basic elements that we know are very advantageous in language acquisition.

The main of these characteristics is motivation, which has given rise to theories on second language learning where this factor is a central element.

The fact that expert learners are therefore people with a natural proclivity for language acquisition makes it unclear whether they are better learners because their experience gives them a noticeable advantage, or whether they have been from the beginning. principle due to their higher level of motivation, lower levels of anxiety, and other affective-emotional factors that have a great impact on these processes.

Use it for teaching

The consideration of multilingualism and the acquisition of third languages ​​as a phenomenon in itself has led to an advance in our understanding of language learning.

Given the importance of our linguistic baggage and the resource saving processes that constantly operate in our brain, it is essential that we understand that the design of educational strategies in language teaching must be adapted to their context.

This includes, in many cases, understanding that the reality of the classroom includes both second language speakers and multilingual speakers. For them, the foreign language is not their first linguistic contact beyond the native language.

Research on these processes plays a fundamental role in our ability to respond to diversity and thus optimize our results in language teaching.

Author Bio: Jorge Gonzalez Alonso is Senior Researcher at the Nebrija Cognition Research Center (CINC), Faculty of Languages ​​and Educatio at Nebrija University