Two languages, many stories: Speakers embrace bilingualism

Language is a way of expressing ideas and interacting with each other — a form of communication used daily that many do not think twice about. But for three University scholars, language has completely shaped their lives.

“Learning a second language is like acquiring another window to look out at the world,” said Rakesh Bhatt, professor of Linguistics.

Language opened doors for Bhatt, who was born India. He grew up with two native languages, Kashmiri and Hindi, and was formally introduced to English in school.

Language also changed the life of Tania Ionin, assistant professor of Linguistics, who is fluent in Russian and English. After moving to the United States, Ionin became a linguist and wrote her dissertation on Russian speakers learning the English article system.

For Silvina Montrul, professor and head of the department of Spanish, Italian and Portuguese, language has always played a dominant role in her life. Montrul was born in Argentina and began studying English at nine, as well as French at 13. She moved to the United States to earn a master’s in English and later moved to Canada to receive a PhD in linguistics.

“The fact that I chose English as a career, changed my entire life,” Montrul said. “It took me away from my home country, and it developed my personal life and my professional life in a completely different way than I thought of when I was a little girl.”

As seen through the lives of Montrul, Ionin and Bhatt, learning a foreign language can be a personally fulfilling experience. It teaches one about the internal workings of a language, expands one’s worldview and gives one a better understanding about how people speak, live and hold different cultural beliefs.

“Language is where all the cultural myths and the rituals of a particular community are coded in. By speaking that language, you are basically practicing and animating those ideas, those belief systems, those ideologies,” Bhatt said. “They’re all in the language. Language is culture.”

Language can also lead to life-long friendships, or even to romance.

“A lot of people learn a second language because they fall in love,” Montrul said. “Sometimes, if that happens, you end up with a bilingual family.”

This is the case for Ionin, who is raising her daughter as bilingual in Russian and English. Ionin and her husband use Russian at home, while their daughter is learning English at school. “Being bilingual myself, knowing two languages, means that I can pass this on to her,” Ionin said.

Beyond one’s personal life, bilingualism is advantageous to one’s professional life.

Bhatt said knowing a second language is like “acquiring different tools to communicate and to conduct yourself in a global marketplace of ideas, of goods, of different transactions that take place worldwide.”

One common trend is double majoring in a foreign language in addition to one’s chosen area of study. This allows people to work in their chosen area, such as business, and also have the opportunity to work in foreign countries. Many also combine a foreign language degree with an education degree to become foreign language teachers. Another popular route people take is getting a bachelor’s degree in a foreign language, and then going onto graduate school to do more study in that language, such as linguistics, literature or translation.

For Foreign Language Club President Liz Fedak, junior in LAS, becoming fluent in a second language could help her tremendously with her future dream career of international journalism. Fedak is majoring in global studies and is currently in her ninth semester of studying Arabic.

“My hope is that I can travel to the Middle East and actually talk to people, instead of just writing about the war,” Fedak said.

While learning a language is beneficial in many aspects of one’s life, negative attitudes about foreign languages still exist.

“There is a lot of pressure for immigrants to assimilate to English as rapidly as possible,” Montrul said.

Montrul said these negative attitudes come from those who do not know other languages and have prejudices.

The only detriment associated with language is when children have to abandon their native languages to learn a second language because, in Montrul’s opinion, “they are abandoning part of their identity.”

“Here is this amazing cultural treasure that they have lost, and when you lose a language, what do you lose? You lose an entire history, the culture, what drove those communities where this language was spoken,” Bhatt said.

For those considering learning a second language, Montrul said the best way for an individual to learn a language is through a combination of a classroom setting and a naturalistic setting.

A classroom setting involves explicit learning of languages. Students learn language explicitly by going to class, thinking about the language and studying the textbooks.

A naturalistic setting involves implicit learning of languages.

“Implicit learning is what young children are doing. Three-year-olds don’t sit down and study a language. They’re learning it implicitly from being immersed in it, from hearing it,” Ionin said.

The amount of time it will take an individual to successfully learn a second language depends on several factors. One factor is how early in life the individual starts. On average, children tend to outperform adults in becoming bilingual.

“Children’s brains are like sponges. It really shocks and surprises you how much they pick up on different languages without having to be explicitly taught,” Bhatt said.

In terms of rate, adults have the advantage, because they can learn faster in a shorter period of time. But in the long term, children are better second-language learners than adults.

Montrul stressed the importance of learning a second language as a child.

“In the United States, there are very few programs in elementary schools that focus on giving opportunities to maintain languages or teach languages, unless they are bilingual schools. If you look all over the world, everybody’s learning English at age four or five.”

To try fixing this problem, Montrul started the University Language Academy for Children two years ago to promote language learning in young children.

The amount of time it takes to become bilingual also depends on the proximity of the second language to one’s native language.

Similarities in the structures of the two languages can make the second language easier to learn. According to Ionin, this is because of a phenomenon called “language transfer.” Language transfer is when people transfer some of the properties of their native language to their second language.

For instance, it may be easier for an English speaker to learn Spanish since they share many similarities, while Chinese may be more difficult because English and Chinese have drastic differences, such as a different writing system and the existence of a tone system in Chinese but not English.

The last important factor is the amount of time and effort the individual invests into learning the language.

“For learning a second language, hours of exposure matter, and frequency of exposure matter,” Montrul said.

Learning foreign languages not only benefits an individual personally, but it also could solve global problems.

“Once you learn another country’s languages, cultures, ideologies, systems of understanding and thought patterns, then it could easily lead to cross-culture understanding,” Bhatt said, “which could, potentially, lead to peace and could resolve these conflicts we have all over the world.”