Are there trade-offs to learning a language?


I've always been a little embarrassed when I meet Europeans who can speak three or more languages. Jared Diamond — himself a polyglot — had language on his mind when he sat around a campfire in New Guinea some years ago. He asked the twenty men who were there how many languages they each spoke.

Five was the lowest number. Several spoke between eight and twelve. The winner spoke fifteen.

Now I feel more embarrassed.

Diamond is quick to answer a question you may be asking: yes, these were separate languages, not just dialects. Some, in fact, were from different language families — as far removed from one another as an Indo-European language (think English, Hindi, Spanish, Russian, and German) is from an Afro-Asiatic language (think Arabic, Hebrew, and ancient Egyptian).

Brilliance in many languages — not just the two or three that modern Europeans learn in school — may be the natural state of Homo sapiens. The comprehensive studies on this have yet to be done, Diamond acknowledges, but the evidence that we have suggests monolingualism is an outlier, a fall from grace brought about by the Agricultural Revolution. Compared to our nonliterate hunter-gatherer ancestors, we may be linguistic idiots.

There's no reason that this norm of multiple-language-mastery can't be ours again. And if we can work with human nature we may be able to have this more easily than do those (still sort of awe-inspiring!) Europeans who learn two or three languages in school.

Instead of teaching languages, we can teach in languages. Instead of starting in adolescence, we can start in primary school.

What's the trade-off?

But what's the trade-off? What are we losing, if we teach in other languages?

Are we displacing content knowledge? Are we displacing English proficiency?

Mark asks, in a comment from last week:

...if you only learn math in Spanish, how well will you solve math problems that are presented in English? As you know, when you always learn something in one very specific context, it can be hard to retrieve and apply that knowledge in a different context.

That is, might math suffer for having been learned in a foreign language?

This is an empirical question: data could tell us this one way or the other. And since I don't have access to these studies, I won't make any firm claims. If anyone knows of any data on this — or has any anecdotal evidence one way or the other — could you share it with us?

I suspect that math wouldn't suffer very much. Math is, as I've pointed out before, its own logic, its own "language." To understand a concept in math is to transcend the language that you use for it — to see it as a picture in your mind, or to feel it as something more abstract still.

The terminology of math even links surprisingly well through at least some languages. The German word for sum is Summe. The French word for dividend is dividende. The Spanish word for integer is entero. (Obviously, this would be less useful for a school learning Mandarin, or Arabic, or Hindi — although even those languages have somewhat similar terms for some ideas in math.)

And, of course, the notation for math is (at this point) more or less the same the world over:

2x + 5 = 25 x = 10

is true wherever you go.

There's an odd counterpoint to this. Insofar as learning math is bound up in language, one could hypothesize that wrestling with a problem in another language might actually help students understand it more deeply, precisely because they will have to switch language contexts to do it. That, though, is just a hunch. Good data trumps all hunches!

If there's evidence that math would significantly suffer if learned in a different language, though, then it would make perfect sense to not teach foreign languages through math, but through some other subject — physical education and art were the ones I had suggested before.

Mark continues:

Also, to what extent does mastery of English suffer when a significant chunk of time is spent on another language? You imply that the capacity for language is limitless, but I fear that is a naive idea. If a typical kid learns 300 words by their second birthday, do you really think they can learn 300 words in four different languages by their second birthday for a total of 1200 words? That seems unlikely to me, and I would guess that the total vocabulary capacity of a child remains relatively constant regardless of how many languages he or she learns, implying that you are definitely giving something up when you try to learn more languages. Certainly it is a common complaint among teachers that their students who speak a different language at home really struggle at school.

In other words: does learning words in a foreign language get in the way of learning words in one's first language? Is language learning (at least to some extent) zero-sum?

Here the data is clear and shocking: no.

This finding has had a hard time filtering down to the public, perhaps because it's so counterintuitive. It makes perfect sense that language learning would be zero-sum — why wouldn't it be?

It doesn't help that the first studies that were done (in the U.S., Ireland, and Wales — I'm drawing from Diamond's chapter in The World Until Yesterday again) reported that bilingual students learned the society's dominant language more slowly, and ended up with smaller vocabularies. The studies suffered from a common problem, however: they didn't correct for socioeconomic status. In the three countries, the bilingual children were of lower SES (socioeconomic class) than the monolinguals.

When new studies were run to compare children of similar SES, the differences disappeared. Bilingual and monolingual kids say there first words at (on average) the same age, say their first sentence at the same age, and acquire a 50-word vocabulary at the same age.

After that the studies diverge a little. Some find that monolingual adults have larger vocabularies (up to 10% larger, in their primary language) than do bilingual adults. Other studies find no difference.

How meaningful is a 10% difference in vocabulary? I'm not sure, though I'm willing to guess it's significant. (And I say that as a word nerd who wants to convert the world to his word nerdery!) But Diamond points out something crucial:

it would be misleading to summarize this result by saying, "Monolingual children end up with a slightly larger vocabulary: 3,300 words versus only 3,000 words." Instead, the result is, "Bilingual children end up with a much larger vocabulary: a total of 6,000 words, consisting of 3,000 English words plus 3,000 Chinese words, instead of 3,300 English words and no Chinese words." (World Until Yesterday, p. 387)

Now, it's entirely defensible to prefer 300 extra English words over 3,000 words in a foreign language. But I would (per Monday's postsuggest that the benefits from learning another language are well worth this (potential) trade-off.

Thanks, Mark, for the tough questions! The thinking on this blog is better as a result.

Foreign-language movies

A small potentially-important side point: in last Friday's post I was honest about my concerns that one hour of foreign language per day might not be enough. Well, my friend — the Mandarin teacher who gave me the initial "teach with a foreign language" idea — suggested a potential fix for that.

Could we recommend students watch foreign-language movies and TV as daily or weekly homework?

Some could be videos done in the culture. Others could be quality English-language films superbly dubbed into the target language.

I'm of two minds on this. I haven't gotten my hands on any studies, but I assume that "passively" watching videos in a foreign language isn't nearly as instructive as being around real people speaking it. On the other hand, a now-fluent Mexican friend first learned English by watching The Simpsons! So I'm a little uncertain as to how effective this might be.

Does anyone know of any data on video-watching and foreign-language acquisition? Does anyone have any personal experiences?

Language learning in the upper grades

Finally, what could our language instruction look like when students get to middle and high school?

Though I've railed against learning languages grammar-rules-first, I understand that once you've passed the critical period of naturally learning the language, studying rules of grammar can be helpful. Doing this means treating language as a subject unto itself — our middle and high school might, then, have specific foreign-language classes.

I suspect that these classes, however, might be significantly more advanced than traditional high school foreign language classes. It'll help that our students will already have been using the language for five years! Perhaps our classes will more resemble upper-level college language classes.

And being able to contemplate a language the school already (to some extent) speaks could open up windows to talking about language more abstractly. What are the structural similarities that lie underneath the superficial differences of human language? Can we suss out hints of a Universal Grammar — or is that an illusion?

And what of the much-disputed Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis — the notion that thinking particular thoughts is harder, or even impossible, in certain languages? (If you've read 1984, this is what Orwell is presupposing with "Newspeak.")

These are some of the delightful riddles of linguistics — and they sit near some of the huge questions of how the mind works, and how the human species binds together. Most schools aren't able to wrestle with them, because the students and faculty don't have common experience with more than one language.

Well: ours will! We can go fully into some of the most interesting intellectual mysteries of our day.

Oh, what fun we'll have!