Being a father is wonderful. And being a father as a cognitive scientist studying the acquisition and management of languages is even more wonderful. Oier, the small walking laboratory that I have at home, is an inexhaustible source of ideas and surprises related to psycholinguistics and the scientific study of multilingualism. He is growing up in a bilingual environment, and shows an amazing ability to process things in any of his languages.
But what surprises me most is that, with barely two years old, he begins to differentiate the conversations in which one language corresponds and not another, adjusting his reduced lexical repertoire to each one. And is that the language management system is a life jacket that bilinguals are always wearing to swim in linguistically demanding contexts.
Like dogs and cats
The acquisition of languages is not something exclusive of early childhood, of course. One can easily imagine many scenarios in which people of different ages can face the learning of a language different from the native one.
But, despite the multiple ways or contexts in which a non-native language can be acquired, there are two aspects that transcend specific situational factors and that govern bilingual communication: translations and the need to manage languages to avoid intrusions. And as we will see below, these two aspects are like dogs and cats, which, although a priori they are confronted, will have to be understood in order to favor linguistic coexistence within the same brain.
It is surprising the speed of work of the tools of automatic translation in which you insert a text and immediately you receive a quite accurate version in another language. Even more surprising is the ability developed by translators and interpreters to manage a commentary in one language and generate equivalence at the same time.
But the most surprising thing is that the capacity for spontaneous and apparently automatic translation is not exclusive of linguistic technology algorithms or professionals with years of training, since it is something that all bilinguals do, even if we are not aware of it.
When listening or reading a word in a language, bilingual people spontaneously and unconsciously activate the translation of that word into their other language, especially if what is read or heard is in a non-dominant language or if the bilinguals have a level competence very high in their languages .
That is, a native speaker of Spanish with a high level of English, when reading or listening to “cats and dogs” will automatically activate its equivalent by Spanish translation, “cats and dogs”, although this is not necessary or useful in that particular situation. . And so, although we think that we are immersed in a context with the presence of a single language, people who master more than one language activate the languages of our repertoire in parallel, and live in a constantly bilingual cognitive context.
The critical issue is how to properly manage all those lexical items that bilinguals have active, controlling interference as much as possible, adjusting to the language of each scenario and avoiding the intrusions of the rest of the languages.
Numerous studies have shown that the mechanisms of linguistic control require a good monitoring of the context and the languages of the interlocutors, a correct inhibition of the structures, words and sounds of the languages not used in the conversation, and, in the case to require alternation of languages (for example, when we communicate with several people in several languages in the same conversation), enough cognitive flexibility to cope with the updating process after each language change.
And thanks to the fact that these linguistic control mechanisms operate correctly, bilinguals get our languages not to be carried like the dog and the cat.
Myths of the bilingual school
The bilingual school faces a simple challenge in the midst of this linguistic complexity of multilingual environments: how should languages be managed in the school context?
When it comes to organizing the use of languages in education, the first thing that must be taken into account is the spontaneous, automatic, involuntary and unconscious nature of mental translations, which, taken to its extreme, means that our native languages are always present, even in contexts in which the vehicular language is different. It makes little sense to penalize or prohibit the presence of native languages in the school, even if it is in a foreign language class, since, although they are not verbalized, they will be equally active and present.
In fact, if the education system favored the real alternation of languages in the classroom avoiding any manifestation of linguistic harassment to certain languages in certain contexts, the communication could be much more fluid. The most recent psycholinguistic research shows that voluntary language change can be a communicative advantage.
Thus, a recent study by our team has shown that, if we allow bilinguals to freely switch between the languages they know, they will do so very frequently, and this will also make their verbal productions even more fluid than if we forced them to use only one language. of the languages they know.
Moreover, studies show that learning new concepts using multiple vehicular languages does not lead to impoverishment of knowledge . Cognitive science has already dismantled the old myth that mixing languages within the same subject could have negative consequences for learning , and now we know that we can favor linguistic inclusion without fear that this will be detrimental to the acquisition of knowledge.
From linguistic harassment to linguistic inclusion
We are on the verge of a new era in language teaching, and we have the opportunity to put the focus on multilingualism with structural changes aligned with a truly multilingual perspective .
Beyond myths and false beliefs, we should encourage scientifically validated methods in language teaching and promote research in this field. This is something that was explicitly highlighted in the recent Council Recommendation of the European Union on a global approach to language teaching and learning proposed by the European Commission, which underlines the clear need to develop innovative, inclusive and multilingual pedagogies.
A good way to start is by creating spaces for the coexistence of languages in the school context, without dividing their use and without promoting a management of the languages that penalize the use of one or the other, trusting in their management by the speakers.
My two-year-old son has started doing it himself, and it’s not going badly for him.
Author Bio: Jon Andoni Duñabeitia is Principal Investigator of the Faculty of Languages and Education at Nebrija University