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There Are Probably No Cognitive Benefits to Bilingualism

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About one week ago I wrote about bilingual education, and I admitted my mild skepticism about the research about the benefits of bilingualism. A friend emailed me and wondered why I was only “mildly skeptical.” Partly I didn’t want the comments to get sidetracked, but recently friends on Facebook have started to get exercised that Ron Unz is running for the Senate, and how bad he is for not giving the children the opportunity to be bilingual. And of course all the research that confirms how great bilingualism is referenced.

So here’s an article from last month that my friend sent me. I’ll quote the appropriate section, you’ve seen this movie before, The Bitter Fight Over the Benefits of Bilingualism: For decades, some psychologists have claimed that bilinguals have better mental control. Their work is now being called into question:

But a growing number of psychologists say that this mountain of evidence is actually a house of cards, built upon flimsy foundations. According to Kenneth Paap, a psychologist at San Francisco State University and the most prominent of the critics, bilingual advantages in executive function “either do not exist or are restricted to very specific and undetermined circumstances.”

Paap started looking into bilingualism in 2009, having spent 30 years studying the psychology of language. He began by trying to replicate some seminal experiments, including a classic 2004 paper by Bialystok involving the Simon task. In that task, volunteers press two keys in response to colored objects on a screen—for example, right key for red objects, left for green. People react faster if the position of the keys and objects match (red object on right half of the screen) than if they don’t (red object on left). But Bialystok found that twenty Tamil-English bilinguals from India were faster and more accurate at these mismatched trials than twenty English-speaking monolinguals from Canada. They were better at suppressing the location of the objects and focusing on their color—a sign of superior executive function.

“It was a really exciting finding and one that I thought would be easy to study with my students,” says Paap. “But we just couldn’t replicate any of the effects.” After years of struggling, he published his results in 2013: three studies, 280 local college students, four tests of mental control including the Simon task, and no sign of a bilingual advantage.“That broke the dam,” he says. “Others started submitting negative results and getting their articles published.”

Jon Andoni Duñabeitia, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Basque Center on Cognition, Brain, and Language, was one of them. In two large studies, involving 360 and 504 children respectively, he found no evidence that Basque kids, raised on Basque and Spanish at home and at school, had better mental control than monolingual Spanish children. “I am a multilingual researcher working in a multilingual society,” says Duñabeitia. “I’d be very happy to see an advantage for bilinguals! But science is what it is. We find no difference and we have replicated it several times, in older adults, kids, and young adults at university.”

For example, one group of researchers analyzed 104 abstracts on bilingualism that were presented at scientific conferences. They found that 68 percent of abstracts that found an executive-function advantage were eventually published in journals, compared to just 29 percent that found no advantage. This publication bias, a common problem in psychology and science as a whole, means that the evidence for the phenomenon seems stronger than it actually is.

But Paap doesn’t think much of the published evidence either. He found that a bilingual advantage only shows up in one in six tests of executive function, and mostly in small studies involving 30 or fewer volunteers. The largest studies, involving a hundred or more, all found negative results.

The proponents of bilingualism as a cognitive benefit have reacted angrily. Read the whole thing. But it’s probably not a real strong effect if there is any at all. Just another battle in the replication wars….

 
• Category: Science • Tags: Psychology 

56 Comments to "There Are Probably No Cognitive Benefits to Bilingualism"

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  1. I thought Ron Unz was campaigning against unilingual education? California seems to be the only place that calls this “bilingualism.” What Unz is fighting for is actually greater bilingualism for children from Spanish speaking homes. Just because California calls unilingual Spanish education “bilingual” doesn’t mean it actually is.

    I don’t think the evidence for impacts on things like executive control were ever all that convincing. The evidence for improved 3rd language acquisition seemed to be the most solid. That being said…

    Read the whole thing.

    I would if not for the paywall. Anyone have a link a “free” copy of the paper? It would be good to see if they specifically looked at any of the very well cited papers on this topic. It’s rather hard to discuss the topic at all without it.

    One thing that I think is important to control for is self-selection in immersion programs. In Canada at least, immersion programs skew strongly to higher socioeconomic backgrounds, and even for immersion students from less well off backgrounds, I think it’s reasonable to assume that the parents of kids in immersion programs are more invested in their children’s education than average simply by virtue of taking the initiative to choose a specialized program for their child.

    This can matter a lot though. Except in very equal countries like Denmark, the family income of one’s classmates plays a greater role than one’s own parental income. It’s very much worth your while to try to influence who your children’s peers will be. (Sorry for people who think the heritability of intelligence is the primary cause here – it isn’t, at least not in the US or Canada or most Western countries. I can provide a source if there’s an interest.)

    It actually makes immersion programs a bit controversial sometimes – some people accuse governments of favouring rich kids at the expense of other students when they put resources into immersion.

    I’d be curious as to your (and others) take on this paper:

    The relation of bilingualism to intelligence

    http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/mon/76/27/1/

    1466 citations

    Bilingualism, Aging, and Cognitive Control:
    Evidence From the Simon Task

    https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Raymond_Klein/publication/8485256_Bilingualism_aging_and_cognitive_control_evidence_from_the_Simon_task/links/02e7e5162c0ba8be64000000.pdf

    950 citations

    Those are the highest citation papers I could find on the subject. Are they addressed by de Bruin?

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  2. I thought Ron Unz was campaigning against unilingual education? California seems to be the only place that calls this “bilingualism.” What Unz is fighting for is actually greater bilingualism for children from Spanish speaking homes. Just because California calls unilingual Spanish education “bilingual” doesn’t mean it actually is.

    so, it is interesting. my facebook friends are often liberals who don’t know kids who grew up in these schools personally. if i did not teach at UC Davis i wouldn’t have either; but Davis takes in a lot of community college and CSU transfer students from the central valley. one of my facebook friends actually thinks that the bilingual education my students got in the 1990s was like the immersion schools that middle to upper middle class students can benefit from. i don’t think that this confusion is going to be easy to clear up because of social segregation. the difference would be obvious if you ever talk to people who went through bilingual education in the 1990s, but most liberal professionals (generally asian and white) in california never really get to know one of these people well.

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  3. How come everyone else in the world manages to pull it off except us? I’ve been to 8 countries in the last 18 months, and pretty much everyone I run into, everywhere, under the age of about 35, has at least a fair grasp of English.

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  4. I would if not for the paywall. Anyone have a link a “free” copy of the paper?

    which one. i’ll upload it for you.

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  5. there are differences between spoken and written english. i’ve worked with international post-docs whose english is near fluent (perhaps as fluent as a cajun person with an accent?). but they struggle a lot more in writing english. this is what i’ve noticed in a lot of “bilingual” educated students. their spoken english is pretty much fluent, but their written english and presumably their comprehension of written english is lower.

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  6. One thing that I think is important to control for is self-selection in immersion programs. In Canada at least, immersion programs skew strongly to higher socioeconomic backgrounds, and even for immersion students from less well off backgrounds, I think it’s reasonable to assume that the parents of kids in immersion programs are more invested in their children’s education than average simply by virtue of taking the initiative to choose a specialized program for their child.

    I think this is an important factor. In this case though, it’s probably hard to compare. The California system Razib is describing is more like the Francophone public schools we have in Ontario (and perhaps some other provinces) than like French Immersion.

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  7. This one if you could: http://pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2014/12/04/0956797614557866.abstract

    Thanks.

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  8. “Bilingual” programs, in California oriented towards latino students are not bilingual. English is taught at ELL level, but the remaining 5 academic classes are taught almost entirely in Spanish. Added to the fact that the academic level of Spanish classes in math, science and reading was poor, both, because of the students and the teachers, resulted in the students lagging behind in math, reading and science, and with high dropout rates of children in supposedly, bilingual classes.

    Prop 227 did not totally outlaw this. It brought in a “sheltered” classroom where people went through bilingual study, but which needed waivers. This is almost entirely a Latino student only feature, and has most of the issues in academic performance, as bilingual programs.

    The “immersion” programs in rich suburbs, and the Canadian Bilingual programs are entirely different. The immersion programs have an early 100% immersion component, but laterals into all-English by high school, as math, sciences, and harder concepts such as government and History returns back to English. The retention of language immersed in, is poor, especially for children who are not in any way connected to that language.

    I do not have the familiarity to talk about Canadian Bilingual programs.

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  9. The retention of language immersed in, is poor, especially for children who are not in any way connected to that language.

    sames the case for my brother-in-law.

  10. More extreme than the French school boards it seems even. They introduce English at age 10, where in California it was age 13. Franco-Ontarians are just 5% of the population – francophones are exposed to a great deal of English from every day life at a very early age. Spanish speakers are 30% of the population of California. This is a different case entirely.

    IIRC, people in the French school system actually score better on standardized tests for English in Ontario lol. The French school boards use it as a selling point. (Likely self selection going on here too, but that’s not a bad thing for the kids involved.)

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  11. Spanish speakers are 30% of the population of California

    yeah, and just to be clear, these kids in these public high schools are pretty much in a latino world. california is pretty segregated. compare the good vs. bad HS by student demo here and u’ll see what i mean….

    http://www.usnews.com/education/best-high-schools/california/districts/fresno-unf-100167

  12. “Spanish speakers are 30% of the population of California”

    People of Mexican origin are 30% of the population; Hispanics/Latinos are 37.6% of the population, and school age population of Hispanic/Latino origin is 53%.

    As such, the return of “bilingual” education would lead to double segregation, both, by living areas, and by educational segregation.

    “IIRC, people in the French school system actually score better on standardized tests for English in Ontario lol. The French school boards use it as a selling point”

    This does not appear to be true, based on

    [1] “Francine Dénommé & Ruth Childs, Canadian Journal of Educational Administration and Policy, Issue #71, March 31, 2008. ” and

    and

    [2] “As can be seen from Table 1.4, only two provinces (Quebec and Ontario) showed a statistically different performance on the mathematics scale between the two systems. Students from the francophone system in Quebec and from the anglophone system in Ontario achieved a higher average than the alternates in the same province.” in
    “Measuring up: Canadian Results of the OECD PISA Study The Performance of Canada’s Youth in Mathematics, Reading and Science 2012 First Results for Canadians Aged 15″

    In general, based upon Indian experience, school systems which attempt to “bilingualize” their education have not been successful. If anything, Indian schools are increasing Anglicizing the education, and this, no doubt, is bad.

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  13. As a researcher in cognitive science, who is interested in EF and language, I found Bialystok’s original work and claims quite frustrating, because some of the research confounded bilingual status with ‘child of relatively wealthy immigrant family’ status. People who have it together enough to immigrate successfully may well have kids who have better executive function.

    I do agree with her complaint in the linked article about the utility of some EF paradigms, many of them aren’t particularly good.

    In any case, at this point, if there is any cognitive advantage at all, it’s likely small, given the reproducibility issues.

  14. I’ve found that a lot of Asian-origin post-docs/grad students have much better written English than spoken. Some presentations I attended were very awkward because I could not understand more than 10% of what the speaker was saying. Most of the European ones speak English pretty well, but their writing is more variable.

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  15. Still have to read the paper Razib uploaded, so won’t comment too much, but…

    People of Mexican origin are 30% of the population; Hispanics/Latinos are 37.6% of the population, and school age population of Hispanic/Latino origin is 53%.

    I’m going by the % of the population who speaks Spanish at home. Don’t disagree with any of your other statistics – just making the point that Spanish in California is much more culturally influential than French in Ontario.

    This does not appear to be true, based on…

    My comment was on English language scores, not on math scores. :3

    Not sure what they were basing that on though – the claim had a dead link as a source.

    There are a lot more statistically significant differences than the ones you mention though. I can’t seem to make much sense of it though (for example, francophones do better on spacial reasoning across the board for some strange reason).

    I know here in BC the French school boards are badly underfunded – to the point of the government losing a law suit over it. At the same time, French immersion schools (which are part of the English school boards) are overfunded compared to the standard class. Convulted I know – I hope that’s a clear explanation.

    There does seem to be a quality gap in Ontario for French school boards based on the data you shared. I wonder if that gap remains once you control for geography? The Franco-Ontarian population is more rural and northern than the average Ontarian, and those areas tend to have worse education outcomes in general for a variety of reasons (particularly due to the fact that in resource-based areas the top paying jobs don’t require you to go to university, unlike in urban areas).

    If anything, Indian schools are increasing Anglicizing the education, and this, no doubt, is bad.

    Um. Wouldn’t that mean increased bilingualism?

    You mentioned earlier immersion kids losing their language skills. I’ll admit mine have become a bit rusty living in an overwhelmingly anglophone area. I’ve found I can get them back pretty quickly with practice though. Is that your experience?

  16. says:
         Show CommentNext New Comment

    As a political football to be kicked around, bilingualism is a very bad thing. As a personal issue for an individual to learn another language, that is fine.

  17. I always get annoyed a bit when some Tiger Mom or Dad goes on about the supposed “IQ-raising benefits” of early total immersion in a second language. They just don’t seem to be able to be upfront and admit that they do this for their kids, because “it’s cool” for their kids to start speaking another language in front of their peers and show off.

    I didn’t do this for my children for any such benefit. I did it because 1) Latin is very useful if you are a traditional Catholic (for one thing, you can understand the Mass), and 2) I taught them my maternal tongue so that they can speak with my side of the family and 3) a couple of other languages because in case they want to work for USG at some point. The rest of the Romance languages, to varying degrees, is bonus after Latin.

    The rest of the time, they speak with Tidewater-accented American English: https://youtu.be/1RzVKCWXrRA

    I feel that the slightly off-the-beaten-path Southern accent of theirs is much cooler than flipping out Japanese at a McLean school board meeting.

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  18. Wait, you taught your kids Latin (!), an Asian language (Korean?), and two other languages?

    Besides English, which I assume it’s their first language.

    So your kids speak 5+ languages, living in the US?

    Not sure I buy it. But if you actually got your kids to actually speak Latin (and not just learn the mass by rote), I’d love to hear some details.

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  19. I’m not surprised the literature is very mixed, and I’m heavily biased as a bi-lingual (and tri-lingual in my teens, before one language atrophied), but I’d bet there is a small effect even if it’s difficult to detect using our standard methods.

    I’m thinking here of my school years, especially in testing, where my brain would switch languages constantly to get to the one that can handle the task most easily. Math in Slavic, where numbers translates to words in a more orderly fashion; for visual tasks, whichever language had the shortest word would get summoned; the latter worked well for reading comprehension, too, using idioms from different languages to save time. The Tamil example struck home for me – I remember doing well at games and test where I forced myself to think in one language and thus could more easily ignore distractions in another.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if this effect is persistent but limited to either domains or contexts (like Math, or standardized testing) and thus not really noticeable over the entirety of executive function.

  20. The comparison between California and Quebec no make sense. Make more sense if you compare California with Ontario, as if french-speakers start to migrate en masse for Ontario and have more kids than ontarian english-speakers.

    There are specific benefits to bilingualism, for example, if you are the only one who can speak a certain language in a particular region, then you can make this advantage in their favor.
    Know to speak two of the most influential languages in the world did not seem so bad. The problem is that most Californians of Hispanic origin and non-Hispanics will not think of these pros and cons.

  21. Whether or not there are cognitive benefits, there are clearly economic and entertainment benefits to speaking and understanding multiple languages. These days, this is especially true of knowing English while living in the US.

    It seems crazy to wait to introduce English until age 10-13. My kids had two English speaking parents, and attended public schools in Germany from kindergarten on. They had absolutely no trouble learning to speak, read, and write in two languages simultaneously.

    They learned German by total immersion in the school, and English by total immersion at home. From knowing not a single word, to being ’3-year old fluent’ in a foreign language seemed to take them about 4-6 weeks. I’m not sure, but I don’t think this is because they learn more easily. I think it is because they have no choice, and nothing else to do while at school.

    And from my observation, the European kids enjoy learning English mainly so they can watch the cool TV shows and movies without having to read all the subtitles, or listen to the bad over-dubbing. Then they can tell their less capable friends what is ‘really’ being said.

  22. Just be devil’s advocate for second language.

    1.Good for your brain

    Bilingualism May Delay Alzheimer’s by More than 4 Years

    http://www.alzheimers.net/12-11-14-bilingualism-delays-alzheimers

    2. Good for rational decision

    To judge a risk more clearly, it may help to consider it in a foreign language.

    http://www.wired.com/2012/04/language-and-bias/

    Well, association might not be causation. People who can master multiple languages might have better and larger brain in the first place. Until larger brain can be ruled out, benefit of second language might not be proven despite of associations above.

  23. There’s very little reason to “pull it off”. The payoff to a Dane who learns English is of course far greater than what an English speaker gets learning Danish. In any case, what second language should be chosen with English being the clear lingua franca these days? I suppose Spanish in the US would be a good candidate (in some regions clearly), but would one have guessed that even 30 years ago?

    For the typical English speaker today with English-speaking parents, learning a second language to fluency is either a supreme luxury or an advantage in only some niche labor market.

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  24. When I was a grad student I edited a number of foreign faculty and grad student papers to make them more readable (I was not paid for that although I did get gifts).

  25. Red and green? Not a test I would like very much. Did they assess the degree of undiagnosed red/green color-blindness, particularly in the men, first?
    Could it be that people from hot jungly places are more adept for whatever reason at spotting red things in all that green? Are parrots better at this test than, say, penguins?
    Location is more to my taste. Up here (55N) there’s not a great deal of color, particularly green, in much of anything for half the year, and it’s pretty damn dark, too, unless the moon is out on the snow, or it’s about lunchtime. So it pays not to trip over stuff or fall in holes, in our shadowy monochrome world. Help could be a long old time coming.

  26. For the typical English speaker today with English-speaking parents, learning a second language to fluency is either a supreme luxury or an advantage in only some niche labor market.

    The cost is virtually nil with a proper immersion program though. Spanish would make sense for most Americans, though I’d suggest Mandarin, Japanese, French, German, Hindi and others could prove useful and would have some basic utility on a society wide level (ie facilitating trade).

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  27. My father was an accomplished linguist and spoke several Asian languages as well as English, German, and Swedish (and could understand Dutch and Danish reasonably well in his younger days). My mother also spoke French and Spanish.

    So my kids benefit from good genes and family culture.

    Wait, you taught your kids Latin (!)

    Latin is a part of their Catholic homeschooling curriculum. But I start them a bit earlier with Minimus (http://www.minimus-etc.co.uk/). Look up on Amazon “Minimus: Starting out in Latin.” Get it? “Mini-mus.” My younger ones find it quite funny once they get the joke.

    Even tiny tots can start learning “Minimus sum. mus sum. qui es? Lepidina sum. mater sum. quis es? Flavius sum. pater sum.” After that, it’s filia, filius, infans, servi (!) – two of them – followed by quis es and qui estis, the two questions. The first lesson ends on a very funny note:

    Minimus: quis es?
    Vibrissa: Vibrissa sum. feles sum.

    Then Minimus shakes and “mus exit.”

    My children loved it and took to learning it with joy… although they were considerably less excited later when they started “Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres” (“All of Gaul is divided into three parts” from Julius Caesar’s Commentaries on Gallic Wars, his self-panegyric).

    So your kids speak 5+ languages, living in the US?

    Not sure I buy it.

    They speak three well and are limited on the other two by their father’s own training at Monterey. But my goal on the other two is to build a foundation, not make them completely fluent. What’s with the skepticism?

    But if you actually got your kids to actually speak Latin (and not just learn the mass by rote), I’d love to hear some details.

    Liturgical Latin and classical Latin are pronounced differently, so just memorizing the Mass doesn’t help the little ones.

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  28. Spanish would make sense for most Americans, though I’d suggest Mandarin, Japanese, French, German, Hindi

    USG would prefer Arabic, Mandarin Chinese, Korean, Farsi, Pashto, and Russian.

  29. Didn’t you know? All the kids of Unz commentators are well adjusted, good looking, genii. Cause or effect? I’m not sure.

  30. Thanks for the details.

    The skepticism comes from experience. I’ve heard way too many implausible claims about language ability. I speak several Asian languages too and I know how hard it is.

    I live in Japan now and even the children of foreigners end up monolingual in Japanese unless the household pressure is *very* strong, and they get to go home often.

    But I can see how your homeschooling changes the equation. I’d like to hear how your kids evolve over time.

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  31. I live in Japan now and even the children of foreigners end up monolingual in Japanese unless the household pressure is *very* strong, and they get to go home often.

    It used to be very common for young English (or European) gentlemen to be taught at home by a tutor in several languages, starting with Latin and Greek, and then building on that foundation with related, especially Romance, languages. Then some such folks would become Orientalists later in life and pick up Arabic, Farsi, Hindustani or even Mandarin Chinese or Japanese on top of that. The limiting factor was travel/residency experience, which was very costly and time-consuming.

    Now Skype is quite useful in getting that conversation time in with native speakers of other languages. I have the service set up on our family “internet TV,” and it works very well.

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  32. Lake Wobegon Review!

  33. I have the feeling that those young European gentlemen understood less Latin, let alone Greek, than they claimed. Reminds me of Condoleezza Rice’s fluency at Russian. And of course Orientalists were only a handful of people.

    How do you select those native speakers on Skype? You look for Traditional Catholics across the world? What do your kids talk about?

  34. I have the feeling that those young European gentlemen understood less Latin, let alone Greek, than they claimed. Reminds me of Condoleezza Rice’s fluency at Russian.

    Your feeling aside, Condi Rice’s alleged Russian fluency has nothing to do with the kind of quality at-home tutoring that English gentlemen of yore received. If they did not learn, the tutors were directly and immediately held accountable. Furthermore, they reinforced and expanded this linguistic education with extended sojourn overseas – during the time when many locals did not speak English.

    How do you select those native speakers on Skype? You look for Traditional Catholics across the world? What do your kids talk about?

    I do not need Skype for Latin. Skype is strictly for other languages. As for conversational partners, they are mostly friends and acquaintances. I try to select them as close to my children’s age as possible, and they talk about the usual kid stuff.

    I am also fortunate that there is a decent pool of native speakers for all the languages my children study in my area (well, the area of my main residence anyway).

    By the way, I am quite insistent that most people handicap their own language learning by fixating on getting the grammar right. Language is foremost about communication – getting your thought across and understanding what the other person is saying, at its barest level. So I emphasize vocabulary above all else in the early instruction to my children. If you know words you can get meaning across and understand the partner’s intent even without knowing grammar. And then the structured formal grammar is added on to this once a sufficient volume of vocabulary has been built.

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  35. Ideally yes, but parents often couldn’t judge the progress themselves, and incentives were there for teacher and student conspiring to cheat. Not everyone went overseas and not everyone was a good learner. It’s one thing to learn French by staying several years in a fancy villa in Southern France having fun. Latin is way harder and there’s no possible way to get that sort of immersion. Greek is close to impossible unless you’re very good at it and you must read Plato.

    On grammar, yes, you’re right on that. To the extent that one should learn a language like a child does his first one; you first learn the words, then once you get a critical mass of usage instances you slowly understand how words are to be combined or inflected.

    I tell my Asian acquaintanes to just not bother learning the inflection of European verbs, at least at first. Does wonders for their ability to communicate early. If they’re still interested after that they can spend the time learning the hard stuff.

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  36. Back in the ’60s, prevailing psychological wisdom was that raising children bilingual delayed or impaired their learning math. That’s the main reason my parents didn’t raise me with a second language.

    That, and English was both their *third* language, and their only common language. I did learn, starting in elementary school, little bits of their native languages.

  37. I just took a very quick look at the APA paper (scanned the abstract, basically), and they are claiming that the prior studies were flawed, but they don’t seem to take any position as to whether or not bilingualism actually contributes to overall cognitive function.

    BTW: As others have pointed out, there is a problem with semantics here. The so-called “bilingual” programs in California that Unz is opposing are more like non-lingual programs, or “how to be illiterate in two languages” programs. Calling them “bilingual” is Orwellian double-speak.

    I am a native English speaker, my wife is a native Spanish speaker, and our 3 children are bilingual (to varying degrees). Based on our experience, I would say that it would be extremely difficult to set up the kind of truly balanced bilingual environment that would presumably be necessary in order to carry out any kind of meaningful, reproducible experiments on cognition.

    All of the people that the young child encountered would have to be equally divided between speakers of language “A” and speakers of language “B” — regardless of their socio-economic status or their importance in the child’s life.

    In my own experience, when our oldest was in the 1 to 3 year age bracket, she was becoming a mostly-Spanish speaker in spite of the fact that I was the stay-at-home parent, speaking exclusively English! (And I had her watching Sesame Street, etc. in English.) Apparently, mothers are just more important than fathers in the child’s mind at that age. And when she went into a Spanish-speaking pre-school, I completely lost the battle. But when we moved back to the USA and put her into an English speaking pre-school at ~ age 3, the scales immediately tipped back in the other direction.

  38. Except that those Danes speak German also. There is really no reason for them to learn German as Germans speak English, but they must learn a third language in school so they do.

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  39. “Except that those Danes speak German also. There is really no reason for them to learn German as Germans speak English, but they must learn a third language in school so they do.”

    Very true. Nearly 90% of 20 year olds in Germany, The Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway can speak English at a reasonable level. The rest of western Europe isn’t that much lower. And this is also true in eastern Europe in the touristy areas, and among college graduates. Of course this is similar in India, East Asia, and South America among the children of those with very high incomes.

    When I travel and need to ask questions, I just look for someone who looks like they are about 20 years old.

    So, what languages would be the best to teach your children today? I understand why those with military interest could be popular, but that will surely fade or change.

  40. My impression is Danes are much less good at German these days, and much better at English, than even the 1990s. I lived part of my life on a small island in SE Denmark that was frequented by German tourists in the summer, so local knowledge of German was common, but English much less so. Tourist signs would typically be in Danish and German, with no English. But now English is more prominent. In Copenhagen, the disparity is greater, no doubt due to the large number of English-speaking tourists. I remember overhearing some German tourists at Tivoli Gardens complaining that nobody there understood German.

  41. After reading Pinker’s Language Instinct, it became obvious to me that children do not need special help acquiring two or more languages, provided they were immersed in them. But when I prepped to teach some introductory linguistics courses later on, I discovered a whole pile of literature in educational linguistics that claimed the opposite, and that many activists for “bilingual” education were relying on those studies. I wonder how much of that is due to compartmentalization of the field, though. Psycholinguists, with notable exceptions like Pinker, have tended to be skeptical of the Chomskyan tradition, with its unshakable believe in innate language faculties and learning mechanisms, and I imagine educational linguists take their cue from the psycholinguists. There’s probably also a political element: “bilingual” education became the progressive cause du jour, and linguists of all stripes are almost all good leftists (Pinker excepted, again), so they might have just gone along with it.

  42. My brother and his wife each speak to their (now 3 and a half year old) son in their respective native language, so ideally he will grow up speaking three languages, but he is stubbornly reverting more and more to English. How did you manage to get your children to speak three languages well? Any particular tricks?

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  43. I thought Ron Unz was campaigning against unilingual education?

    Exactly. “Bilingual education” was essentially parallel education in immigrant languages, given an Orwellian title. It did not achieve better educational outcomes; in fact, data showed that the more school years spent in “bilingual” education, the less skills acquired by graduation. Part of that may have been that the brighter and more motivated non-English speakers picked up English more quickly and joined the main track sooner. “Bilingual” education also had the effect of dividing schools into language tribes.

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  44. A French woman on the City-Data discussion board joked that no European living east of Austria knows how to speak English, lol.

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  45. says:
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    Bilingualism divides everything into language tribes. By its very nature it is an extremely divisive policy. The best ‘solution’ (the ideal solution is just one language period) is territorial uni-lingualism for those states that suffer the dubious misfortune of lacking natural linguistic unity. Switzerland is the best example of this. Every group has their own turf, where only their language gets used and everybody knows up front where they stand. Canada, insanely has the exact opposite policy.

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  46. Ideally yes, but parents often couldn’t judge the progress themselves, and incentives were there for teacher and student conspiring to cheat.

    Do you think this “conspiracy” continued on at Eton and Oxford?

    It’s one thing to learn French by staying several years in a fancy villa in Southern France having fun. Latin is way harder and there’s no possible way to get that sort of immersion.

    Latin should not be hard at all if you already speak French and have been going to liturgy in Latin and taking Latin lessons all your life. There was a time when educated English gentlemen were expected to be well-versed in Latin and Greek as I already wrote.

    But I do understand what you are saying about the complexity of the Latin language. Hence “Romanes eunt domus” (or “People called Romanes they go the house”): https://youtu.be/IIAdHEwiAy8

  47. … he is stubbornly reverting more and more to English. How did you manage to get your children to speak three languages well? Any particular tricks?

    On the softer side of teaching, children are creatures of imitation, so if the parents speak their languages joyfully with others (rather than only speaking TO the children), most will imitate their parents.

    On the harder side, there is always not responding back to your child at all (calmly) if he doesn’t speak to you the way you’d like. That goes not only for languages but also for manners and a whole host of other contexts. E.g. If my one of my little ones were to say “Give me a napkin,” I would just ignore him. Then it’s “I’m sorry, papa. May I PLEASE have a napkin?” “Yes, you MAY!” (with a very happy note). With the older ones, it’s pretty much automatic.

    Operant conditioning training works for dolphins, dogs, children, and… adults, too, for that matter.

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  48. Thanks for your reply. My brother and his wife are from different cultures, so by necessity they have to speak English to each other. They also have no friends or family near them to speak in their native language, and I’m afraid our Skype sessions are not enough for my nephew to hear his parents speaking with others in a language other than English.

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  49. You’re welcome.

    My brother and his wife are from different cultures, so by necessity they have to speak English to each other.

    Please see point 1 in my earlier reply. Children imitate. It seems to me that if your brother and his wife wanted their children to speak their respective languages, perhaps they might want to teach each other and have the children see/hear this.

    Think of it this way – why would the children speak anything other than English when they see and hear their parents only speak English to each other? “Do as I say, not as I do” doesn’t work well with children in my experience.

    Creating a totally immersive (or nearly immersive) environment is not easy, bar moving to another country, but rarely is anything worth doing ever easy.

    Last point: some people/children are just not that gifted linguistically. My wife is a lot of things – smart, athletic, and attractive – but she is poorly gifted with language skills. She just doesn’t pick up languages as easily I did and do (I can imitate accents the first time I hear them and I see vocabulary patterns very quickly).

    But she makes a valiant effort nonetheless and will embarrass herself in front of the children to show that she tries. So she tries to speak all the languages I speak (I have taught her over the decades), and she sounds absolutely terrible, but she will speak them in front of the children and me at the risk of my children finding her efforts comical.

  50. A French woman on the City-Data discussion board joked that no European living east of Austria knows how to speak English, lol.

    Completely wrong, and ironic, coming from a French woman. In my experience Slovaks, Poles, Ukrainians and Russians speak much better English than the French, especially if you are talking about anyone under 40. Hungarians are fairly poor at English, true, but even in Romania, Bulgaria and Serbia most educated people have excellent English. The countries with the weakest English are in Western Europe – Spain and Italy.

  51. Bilingualism divides everything into language tribes.

    This is one reason why English has been so succesful in Continental Europe even though it might have seemed more logical for historic and cultural reasons to try to make French, German or even Spanish the “glue” for the EU. England is not on the continent, and therefore fairly neutral and not a competing tribe next door. I think only the French and the Spanish really have some sense of speaking an “enemy tongue” when speaking English, for every one else English is very practical.

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  52. Except of course ABBA , none of whom spoke a word of English.

  53. That’s even more true in east Asia, where a lingua franca is the only way one party can avoid losing face. Asian language rivalry has an intensity that makes European language rivalry look like a family squabble.

    The French harbor a lot of resentment over the loss of the position of their language as the international upper class language.

  54. says:
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    “The French harbor a lot of resentment over the loss of the position of their language as the international upper class language.”

    I am sure that is true. But you know, the French seem to just have an issue with languages period. Here in Canada where French was never an international or upper class tongue, the Francophones have the same deep-seated hostility and resentments too. French speakers just seem to have some kind of pathology about language. You just don’t see this with other groups.

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