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Multilingualism, a Rewarded Ability for Adolescents

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Statistics have shown that only a small portion of the world population is multilingualism, which is the ability to be highly proficient in spoken and written multiple languages. However, there has been a trend of increasing number of people being multilingual since the start of 21st. century. For instance, governments from countries in East Asia have been focusing on the foreign-languages programs in primary and secondary education for the past few decades. Studies have been conducted to find out the most suitable age for people to study additional languages, and one of the studies shows that only children who started to learn their second language before the age of fifteen may fully attain the native pronunciation of that language (Lightbown & Spada, 2013, p. 94).

Despites those who have learned several native languages already in their early childhoods, there are m any teenagers starting to learn foreign languages guided by their parents. Whereas the majority of parents may not fully understand the actual differences between children who are capable of mastering multiple languages and those who are not. Therefore, it is necessary for the public to recognize the advantages that multilingualism can provide. Mu ltilingualism is beneficial to teenagers before the age of 15 because adolescents can have more cultural and educational opportunities , better c ognitive skills including memorization, information processing and executive function, and greater communication abilities.

To start with, the capability of multiple languages provides more cultural and educational opportunities for adolescents . First, multilingual teenagers can obtain more cultural opportunities. S ince language is one of the most common and important instruments for human interactions and self-expressions, it is often referred as the foundation of a culture. Therefore, learning a language can help to understand its historical and cultural background. According to Angela Scanrino (2014), by learning and using a different language, teenagers can interpret a diverse part of the distinct culture (Scanrino, 2014, p. 391). Scanrino (2014) also stated that studying new languages emphasizes cultural practices in which people generate, clarify and reflect their own cultural involvements (Scanrino, 2014, p. 390). Being able to speak multiple languages fluently, children have a greater chance to undergo multiple cross-cultural experiences. Understanding the native language when traveling or living in another country allows them to explore and communicate with the local communities in a profounder depth.

According to a Japanese undergraduate student in University of Wisconsin-Madison, he spent his early childhood in Japan, but started to live in China for five years when he was nine, and went to the United State of America later. Since his father had grown up in a traditional Japanese family and his mother was living in China for her first twenty years, living under a combination of two distinct environments allowed him to learn both languages and cultures during his childhood. Furthermore, the reason he can experience the culture in America is that he was able to live with a standard American family during his four years of high school. Therefore, he has been involved in three distinct types of societies. He thinks that the varieties of cultural experiences allowed him to understand things in a deeper aspect, and thus helped him forming a healthy self-esteem. For instance, he learned the importance of conscientiousness and self-independence from Japan, the significance of hardworking from China, and the benefits of liberal views and critical thinking from America. In addition, frequently changed living environments can improve a fifteen-year-old teenager adaptability and flexibility. Despite the cultural opportunities they can receive from multilingualism, multilingual adolescents can be benefited by obtaining extra educational opportunities, and one of the greatest section is the chance to study abroad. Regardless of countries with the exact same native language, most of countries in the world have different official languages with each other. Therefore, being multilingualism is an important determinant deciding whether a student is selected to be in the study-abroad program or not. Furthermore, having opportunities to study abroad in an entirely different country may change a child’s later life. For instance, a South Korean student named Jin Yong Choi learned English as his second language and started studying abroad in America at his age of 14; four years later, he was accepted by University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He explained that the reason he studied abroad is that he was not satisfied with the traditional education system in Korean, which is inflexible and restrictive, and the overly competitive environment in Korea left him no option but to study outside the country. He said that studying abroad at age of fourteen was an irreplaceable experience for him . In his four years of high school in America, his has a more flexible academic experience: he can choose the courses with his preference, the academic environment was intense but not overly competitive, and he was capable of developing his own interests during his spare time. He doubted that he will able be accepted by UIUC without studying abroad in America for high school (Phuong, 2008). According to the statistics provided by Phuong, among approximately 576 South Korean students that were accepted by UIUC in 2008, 346 of them were graduated from a US high school (Phuong, 2008). Therefore, it is helpful to have an experience of studying abroad, and capable of speaking multiple languages is the premise of those opportunities.

Furthermore, multilingualism is helpful to adolescents with their cognitive skil ls containing memorization, information processing and executive function . To begin with, learning an additional language can strengthen their abilities to memorize contents and information processing, which is the processing speed of information inside the brain. Most languages are made up of rules such as word spelling, and grammar, and teenagers under age of fifteen can gain the ability to transfer those knowledges into automated information by practicing. In a book called “How languages are learned”, professor Lightbown et al. wrote that Robert DeKeyser (1998, 2001, 2007), a researcher from University of Maryland, named “declarative knowledge” a s the rules in the language that learners are aware of having, and “procedural knowledge” as the language utilization ability. Lightbown et al. continued that through practicing, learners can find the pattern among declarative knowledges and gradually changed from memorizing declarative knowledge to mastering procedural knowledge (Lightbown & Spada, 2013, p. 109). The process of transferring declarative knowledge into procedural knowledge train allows the brain to improve the memorization ability. Also Lightbown et al. talked about “noticing hypothesis” proposed by Richard Schmidt (1990, 2001), implying that noticing is the critical initial point of memorization (Lightbown & Spada, 2013, p. 115).

By obtaining more procedural knowledge inside the brain, phrases and grammar that are noticed constantly can build up a stronger memorization encoding and storage system. Along with the benefited memorizing system, the connecting speed can also be improved by learning a new language. Lightbown et al. wrote that a speaker who is proficient in multiple languages build a greater network of connections among language features through practices (Lightbown & Spada, 2013, p. 111). Therefore, by associating the information together, learners are able to think and react faster. Moreover, Lightbown et al. wrote about a study conducted by Jacqueline Johnson and Elissa Newport (1989). In the study, 46 Chinese and Korean speakers who started learning English as their second language in distinct ages are tested. They are asked to decide whether there is any grammar or spelling mistake in several complete sentences and match their answer to twelve main categories. The result shows that people who started learning English in the earliest ages received the highest scores (Lightbown & Spada, 2013, p. 95). This is because people who became multilingualism in their childhoods and teenagerhood have been benefited the most from the procedural knowledges, and were able to build a complete network of associations in their brain. Not only multilingualism can improve their abilities to memorize and information processing as part of cognitive skills, but adolescents can also possess stronger executive functions. Executive functions are cognitive processes including selections, attentions, and cognitive flexibility. These are crucial skills for teenagers because they are closely related to their thinking, reasoning, and visual processes. According to Raluca Barac and Ellen Bialystok, there are studies from past decades providing strong evidences that multilingualism before the peak age has no relationship with intelligence growth but tremendous positive effects on developing executive functions (Barac & Bialystok , 2011, p. 37). One of the research was conducted in Switzerland by Lewis Balkan (1970), a professor from Brussels University. Balkan created several nonverbal tests that can precisely measure the cognitive flexibility on three controlled groups: participants in the first group became bilingual before the age of 4; participants in the second group became bilingual between age of 4 and 14; and participants in the last group are monolingual. The results show that the first and second groups have significantly higher performances than the third group. (Diaz, 1983, p. 36). Therefore, being multilingualism has an enormously positive influence on cognitive skills including memorization, information-processing, and executive functions.

Moreover, multilingualism is beneficial to teenagers’ communication abilities. Switching among distinct languages frequently allows adolescents to improve abilities of understanding others points and expressing their own opinion, thus strengthen their communication skills. In the book “How languages are learned”, Lightbown et al. wrote about the interaction hypothesis that is revised by Michael Long (1996), a professor of Second Language Acquisition in University of Maryland, College Park. Long claimed that communication is an effective way to improve language skill because when the presenters are trying to express an idea, they are noticing and compromising with the meaning, and this negotiation is helpful to their language d evelopment (Lightbown & Spada, 2013, p. 114). Therefore, interlocutors can express their opinions more clearly and with less hesitation in the future. Furthermore, a research conducted by University of Chicago and Cornell University has shown that even a minor multi-language learning can influence infants’ abilities to understand and communicate. Sixty-four of 14- to 17- month-old infants were parts of the experiment, in which half of them had exposure to an additional language other than English whereas others do not. On a table, two toys that are selected randomly, one is visible to both experimenter and infant, and another one is only visible to the infant. Experimenter then asked infant to hand over the toy that he could see. For instance, suppose that the two toys are toy car and teddy bear, and experimenter can see a toy car but not the teddy bear, she will ask: “Ooh, I see a car, can you hand over the car please?” Two trials have been tested for both groups, one with two different toys, and another with identical toys. The results have shown that the multilingual group has a mean of 0.683 correction whereas monolingual group has a mean of 0.553 correction, t hus the multilingual group has a ten percent of better accuracy than the monolingual group (Liberman, WoodWard, Keysar, & Kinzler, 2017). Therefore, they have concluded that being multilingual for younger children could enhance their communication skills.

However, there are opposing viewpoint s concerning that multilingualism may contribute to neurodevelopmental disorders. Since the rational part of an average teenager’s brain is not completely developed and will not be fully developed until age of 25, learning multiple languages might have negative effects on their neural system. Uljarevic et al. (2016) stated that learning multiple languages could be difficult and overwhelming for some children and cause neurodevelopmental disorders (Uljarevic, Katsos, Hudry, & Gibson, p. 1205). Nevertheless, there is no study has clearly shown the negative correlation between multilingualism and neurodevelopment. Uljarevic et al. searched through 597 peer-reviewed studies about multilingualism and neurodevelopment. They first removed 465 of them after reading abstracts, and then further removed 82 studies due to non-experimental methods, irrelevant research samples and inconsistent discussion. Out of the fifty remained studies, more than half of them tested on language performance, ten studies tested on language functioning, and rest of the studies tested on other neurodevelopmental disorders such as intellectual disabilities. The results have shown that 94 percent of the studies conclude that there is no relationship between multilingualism and neurodevelopment disorders, whereas three studies have concluded that multilingualism may has a positive influence on language performance (Uljarevic, Katsos, Hudry, & Gibson, 2016, p. 1211). Therefore, there is no evidence supporting that multilingualism contributes to the neurodevelopmental disorders for adolescents under age of fifteen.

Furthermore, parents and r esearchers concern that learning multiple languages for children who has ASD may further damage their communication skills. ASD, the abbreviation of Autism Spectrum Disorder, is the disorder that cause impaired communication and social interaction. They concern that learning additional languages will extend their delays in social interactions. However, studies have been shown that there is no supporting evidence of any association between multilingualism and further communicational damage. In one study conducted by Simon Fraser University, a sample of 174 children between age of 6 and 16 with ASD has been checked in which half of them are multilingual and other half are monolingual. Results have shown that there is statistical difference in communication skills between two groups regarding their disorders. However, there is a negligible difference between two groups, in which the multilingual group has slightly greater performance than the other group (Iarocci, Hutchison, & O’Toole, 2017, p. 1827). As a result, instead of further delaying the social interactions for children with ASD, learning multiple languages may help them to obtain better communication skills.

In addition, there are other opposite opinions arguing that teenagers who studying multiple languages may have a delay when they are trying to express their idea, sometimes may cause confusions between words in distinct languages but with similar meaning or pronunciation. Since multilinguals possess more words and phrases in their brain than monolinguals, multilinguals may need longer time to search through the accurate information in their brain in order to express their ideas (Li, Goldrick, & Gollan, 2017, p. 600). However, this type of disadvantage can be minimized by using the study materials that has words with similar sound sequences with native language. A research conducted by Li et al. has shown that the overlapping phrases with similar sound sequences can effectively reduce the disadvantage about the lags in thinking during conversations (Li, Goldrick, & Gollan, 2017, p. 608). Therefore, if the educators start to be cautious about sound sequences of words and phrases while developing new study materials, the negative effects of multilingualism about the delays can be reduced to minimum.

In conclusion, multilingualism is beneficial to teenagers because there will be cultural and social opportunities available due to broader experiences in different countries, and multilingual adolescents can have a greater chance to study abroad and have multicultural educational experiences. Furthermore, multilingualism is helpful to the development of cognitive skills including memorization, thinking process and executive functions because the transitions from declarative to procedural knowledge can improve the memorization ability and transfer speed inside the brain. Furthermore, research has shown that learning multiple languages results in better cognitive flexibility (Diaz, 1983, p. 36). Lastly, their communication abilities can be improved through oral practices and real social interactions. Currently there are over half of the world population can speak more than one language, whereas a considerable part of them are not proficient in their second language. Capable of speaking additional languages but not fluently is not enough for a child to be fully benefited from multilingualism. Therefore, it is significant for adolescents under age of fifteen and their parents to understand the actual advantages of being multilingual. With greater number of people mastering multiple languages, there will be a stronger network of connections among people from countries all over the world.

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