The Bilingual Brain

A new book by Albert Costa. A paragraph to ponder from Adrian Woolfson’s review:

“Intriguingly, bilingualism appears to slow the rate of progression of Alzheimer’s and can delay the age of dementia onset by up to four years. Nevertheless the benefits of being bilingual may be offset in some individuals by a relative impairment in select areas of linguistic competence. Bilinguals appear to have less efficient access to their lexicon than monolinguals, resulting in more “tip-of-the-tongue” episodes. Bilinguals may also, on average, have smaller vocabularies in both languages. Most provocative, however, is the question of whether bilingualism may modify features of our mental fabric, including those that define our psychology and individuality. Might bilingualism influence our personality, or even our moral systems? Evidence presented by Costa suggests that bilinguals are less egocentric than monolinguals, show more empathy and develop a ‘theory of mind’—as witnessed by their ability to put themselves in the shoes of others—at an earlier age.”

My monolingualism is legion. Nearly two decades ago, our family lived in Chengdu, China for a semester. One day, my mean 5 and 8 year old daughters staged an intervention, forcing me to tell them “how many words I knew in Chinese”. Despite being a grown ass man and it being my third China experience, their vocabulary dwarfed mine. My mostly autobiographical companion book is tentatively titled “The Monolingual Pea Brain”.

Quit Requiring Foreign Language Courses

If that was my view I’d have to find another place to sleep tonight. That’s the recommendation of a Washington State legislator. And not just any legislator, a progressive Democrat. The short version:

A representative in Olympia says prospective college students should have the option to skip Spanish or Chinese and take two years of computer science instead.

Rep. Chris Reykdal, a Democrat from Tumwater, says while he appreciates and respects the time students put into studying foreign languages, the money the state spends could be put to better use.

“My God, we are spending 100 million [dollars] of taxpayer money every year in our high school system to teach world languages where more than half our folks a few years later will never use it again,” Reykdal said.

More here. Imagine how short the school day would be if our criteria for what to teach was whether students use the course content a few years later. How would algebra hold up under a cost-benefit analysis? The arts? Social studies? It’s a sign of an educational apocalypse when a progressive Democrat is thinking so narrowly.

Foreign language teachers better take this as a clarion call for explaining to the legislature and the public the many reasons, both obvious and more subtle, why their courses are especially meaningful.

Heaven help us.