Millennium Post

Be an early linguist

Nobody has ever doubted the power of language. But not many know that the words we learn and the age at which we learn them shape our personality.

One might have grown into an extremely well spoken individual, but s/he will never be as adept with languages as they were right after being born. Experts believe this is precisely the reason why every individual should be introduced to at least two, if not more, languages right in the infancy.

Children these days are learning multiple languages paying greater emphasis on learning one of the foreign languages, which include French, German or Spanish. Since these are not the first languages spoken in Indian households children are introduced to formal learning of other languages only after going to school or sometimes even after completing school.

Although there is nothing wrong with learning anything new at any stage of life but experts do believe that all is not right with ignoring the process of learning multiple languages early in life.
While picking up the knowledge of a foreign language or even any other Indian language at a later stage in life may help broaden one’s career options or serve as a hobby, learning languages in infancy helps in developing both cognitive and sensory skills.

Dr. Anjali Thomas, who works with the department of mental health and behavioural sciences at Fortis Hospital, says: ‘Being bilingual, if not multilingual, promotes mental agility and helps delay neurological disorders such as dementia and Alzheimer.’ According to some studies, monolingual adults tend to show the first signs of dementia at the average age of 71. This is in contrast to bilingual individuals who show their first symptoms around 76 years old, she says.

‘Speaking two languages forces your brain to recognise two different languages systems. So, basically, you become smarter, Thomas says. Explaining the process of how bilingualism acquired in the early years of life helps one become ‘smarter’, Thomas says, ‘Studies have shown that bilingual people have better task switching capacities because of their acquired ability to inhibit one language while using another. This ability has a positive influence on attention.’

Research has also shown that people who speak more than one language are likely to make fewer errors while driving which can be attributed to the positive influence on attention.

Thomas says that since the brain is developing pretty rapidly in the early years of an individual’s life, introducing an individual to multiple languages provides greater cognitive stimulation to the brain thus in turn helping brain development. Thomas says this process therefore becomes two-way.

‘It is easier for a person to acquire the knowledge of a third language if the person is already bilingual. An individual’s English, for example, will be enhanced as you are more aware of language structures, grammar, literacy and language skills,’ she adds.

Explaining the role parents play in helping children learn languages in early age, Thomas says, ‘When a child is born s/he is babbling all kinds of sounds. We reinforce in children sounds that are meaningful. What we reinforce, the child picks up. Sounds that are not reinforced drop out of the child’s cognitive system. If we reinforce sounds of various languages in children, they will pick it all up because their brain is fast developing.’

Dr Manu Tiwari, psychiatrist with Fortis Hospital, says: ‘The earliest sounds that a child learns are retained the longest. What we learn first, is forgotten the last. So introducing children to more languages early in childhood is important for his/her cognitive and behavioural development.’

Tiwari says, ‘Since an individual’s emotions develop in the mother tongue learnt language is a social language. Ignoring the mother tongue can have adverse impact on personality development.’
Given the mad rush to fit into the parameters set by the market, parents in the country are increasingly discouraging their children from speaking in their mother tongues focusing exclusively on learning English. It’s a common sight these days to find parents, not well versed in English, instruct their children in monosyllables of ‘No’, ‘Sit’, ‘Don’t’ among others.

Terming it as a disturbing trend, Thomas, says, ‘Apart from the fact that we are depriving the child of the benefits of learning the mother tongue better, we are also pushing the child towards becoming a socio-cultural misfit.’

Anvita Abbi, professor at Centre for Linguistics, School of Language, Literature and Culture Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, says: ‘Children must be told the benefits of being bilingual and learning different languages. Research works in the recent past have proved beyond doubt that bilingualism has multiple benefits and a solid knowledge of your mother tongue helps strengthen your linguistic foundation which in turn helps build a better personality.’

Knowledge of multiple languages also opens up wider opportunities for people. It tends to broaden a person’s horizon. Diwakar Mani, who worked as a language scientist at the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing and is pursuing his PhD from JNU in Computational Sanskrit Linguistics, has developed an entire index of Mahabharata. He says being multilingual has always given him an edge over his peers.

‘My father was a Sanskrit teacher. He taught students of Class X. Since I came from a Brahmin family, we were introduced to the chanting of Sanskrit shlokas on a regular basis that helped get a grip over the language. English and other languages were picked inadvertently too. All this has helped me build both a career and confidence.’

The cognitive and neurological benefits of being a bilingual individual extend from early childhood to old age as the brain more efficiently processes information and staves off cognitive decline. The attention and ageing aren’t exclusive to people who were raised bilingual; they are also been seen in people who learn a second language later in life. The enriched cognitive control that comes along with bilingual experience represents just one of the advantages that bilingual people enjoy.

Since it has turned out that a multilingual brain is nimbler, quicker, better able to deal with ambiguities, resolve conflicts and even resist Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia longer, it is only practical on parts of parents and teachers to encourage children to start picking up as many languages as they can at as early an age as possible.
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