By Amy Chan
Language is the medium through which humans primarily communicate with each other – it is the very skill that sets us apart from other animals. Whilst animals do have their own communication methods, the ability to communicate through language is by and far unique to humans – not only can we communicate messages to each other – we can do so in a variety of ways. Language allows us to form relationships between one and another, express emotions and understand each other. This brings us then to an important question about language – if language is such an essential element of communication, then does exposure to multiple languages lead to more effective communication skills? Whilst communication is common to all humans – effective communication is not – and exposure to a variety of languages may be key to developing better communication skills.
A University of Chicago study by Samantha Fan, Zoe Liberman and colleagues examined that very hypothesis. The authors asked children aged 4 to 6 years old to complete a social communication task that required the children to communicate in an unclear situation. A total of 72 children were included in the study, with 24 in each of the three different language groups: monolingual (heard and spoke only English and had little experience with another language), bilingual (able to speak and understand two languages including English, and had regular exposure to both languages) or ‘exposure’ (primary spoke English but had some regular exposure to other languages).
The children were asked to play a communication game with an adult individually, which involved moving objects around on a grid. The child had full view of all the objects, but the adult had their view obscured so they could not see all the objects (see picture 1). The child first played from the adult’s perspective so they could understand the obscured view before switching to the other side. The researchers tested the child’s ability to understand perspective by evaluating how the child responded to an ambiguous instruction from the adult. For example, on the grid there were three cars – a small, medium and large one. The smallest one was obscured from the adult’s view (i.e. the adult could only see two cars – the medium and large ones). The adult would say “can you move the small car?”, referring to the medium car as this was the smallest one visible to the adult. In order to interpret the adult’s meaning correctly and pick the correct car to move, the child had to understand from the adult’s perspective that the small car actually referred to the medium car, since the smallest car was hidden from the adult’s view.
Picture 1: Example of a grid used in the social communication task, as seen from both the participant’s and the director’s (the adult’s) perspective. The critical instruction in this case was, “I see a small car. Can you move the small car under the spoon?” The director could not see the smallest car, which served as a distractor.
Reproduced from: Fan S, Liberman Z, Keysar B, Kinzler K. The Exposure Advantage: Early Exposure to a Multilingual Environment Promotes Effective Communication. Psychological Science. 2015. Available at: http://pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2015/05/08/0956797615574699
The results? Children in the bilingual group understood the adult’s intended meaning correctly 77% of the time, as did the exposure group, who understood correctly 76% of the time. The monolingual group not able to interpret the speaker’s intended meaning as well as their more multilingual counterparts – with children selecting the correct object only 50% of the time.
It therefore seems that simply having exposure to different languages can promote the development of communication skills; being exposed to more than one language appears to be just as beneficial as speaking and understanding multiple languages. What we don’t know is why this phenomenon occurs. It could be that exposure to multiple languages provides children with tools for more effective communication. Children may better understand that the same meaning can be derived from different words in different languages, thus leading to a better at picking up different perspectives when communicating. Indeed several studies have found associations between improved working memory and ability to being able to speak another language. Brain regions involved in language and thinking skills have also been reported to be more active in children with multilingual skills – with greater neuronal cell density in areas important for cognitive functioning. This may explain why children exposed to multilingual environments were better able to understand the adult’s view in the car example above, than children from monolingual environments. There is also a hypothesis that when a person is exposed to two or more languages, the brain’s executive control system (which helps a person keep focused on what’s relevant whilst ignoring distractions) has to come into action. The more often the exposure occurs, the more regularly this brain system has to be used, thus potentially making the system more efficient.
This research is only just the beginning – we still have more questions than answers. We don’t know whether this benefit is only seen in children, or whether we as adults could also benefit if we increased our exposure to different languages? Perhaps these benefits can occur throughout our lifespan? Whilst we don’t have answers to these questions yet, having more than one language under your belt can’t be a bad thing. With the ever-growing interconnectedness between cultures in society, having effective communication skills is vital. If being exposed to different languages can help achieve that, then surely it’s a no-brainer – being a good communicator can benefit anybody, plus we can think of it as brain exercise. Indeed the benefits of a bilingual – or multilingual brain – are countless.
Fan S, Liberman Z, Keysar B, Kinzler K. The Exposure Advantage: Early Exposure to a Multilingual Environment Promotes Effective Communication. Psychological Science. 2015. Available at: http://pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2015/05/08/0956797615574699
About the Author
Amy Chan is currently finishing her doctoral degree at The University of Auckland School of Pharmacy and Department of Pediatrics. Her study was a clinical trial looking at how medication taking can be improved in children with asthma using a reminder inhaler. Her research interests focus on understand patient health behaviors and investigating how technology can improve health. She also works as a clinical pharmacist at Auckland City Hospital. Her journey through her PhD and work with patients has opened her eyes to the exciting world of science and research, through which the work of some can help change the lives of many. She believes that "we are only people through people" and that with science and innovation, people are brought closer to each other through knowledge and skills. In her spare time, Amy enjoys writing, crafting, exploring new places and is a keen dance performer.
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