Lesson Transcript

There are a lot of people working to learn another language, but there are also a lot of people who grew up speaking two (or more) languages without even thinking about it! If you're able to speak two languages, you're bilingual. If you can speak more, you're multilingual. In many countries, being bilingual or multilingual is normal or even expected. But in some countries, people grow up speaking (and learning) one language -- if you speak one language, you're monolingual.
So, what can monolinguals learn from bilinguals or multilinguals? This video will look at what it's like to be comfortable in two or more languages.
Here are 6 pieces of information relating to bilingualism and multilingualism that you can use in your language learning.
First: Bilingualism and the Brain
How does being bilingual or multilingual affect the brain? Do you dream in both languages? Do you see subtitles in your head for the other language when somebody is talking?
The answers to questions like these are different for everyone. Some people may dream mostly in the language they're most comfortable with, and occasionally in another language. Some people may be able to effortlessly move between the languages they know, while others may get stuck from time to time. These are all normal parts of knowing more than one language.
People who were exposed to another language since birth may have certain advantages in language acquisition over monolinguals. They may already be familiar with certain sounds and sound combinations that monolinguals are not familiar with.
As a language learner, you're probably quite familiar with this. If you've already mastered a language and have decided to start learning a new one, you're probably going to unconsciously make connections to words in different languages. You'll think to yourself: "This word has the same vowel sound as another word I know, so it should sound pretty similar!"
When it comes to studying things like new vocabulary words and grammar, however, monolinguals, bilinguals, and multilinguals all need to spend time learning and memorizing.
So in your own learning, don't be discouraged by people who speak your native language and your target language. They may have had a totally different learning experience than you. Consider your language studies, not language abilities.
Second: Language Mistakes and Confusion
You may be wondering if bilinguals ever confuse languages in their heads.
Generally, people who are fluent in multiple languages can separate the languages mentally. However, there are situations where people momentarily forget words (even in our native languages), or we think of a word in one language, but not in another. In some cases, we might even want to use a word that exists in one language, but not in the other
An interesting concept from academic literature on this topic is "perfect bilingualism." It's the idea that someone can speak two languages perfectly at an equally high level. Many people assume that someone who grew up speaking two languages would be able to use both of them perfectly and sound flawless, but this is generally not true.
Bilingual people are often more comfortable talking about certain topics in specific languages. There are also situations where bilingual people may pronounce words with a slightly different accent than monolingual people.
Interestingly enough, there's also a similar pattern among bilingual couples. Bilingual couples usually have a single dominant language. Even if they can speak another language with fluency and ease, people will usually use the language that's most efficient and comfortable.
Third: Bilingual Societies
Can you imagine a place where you talk to your family in one language, your neighbors in another, your boss in a third, and write letters in a fourth?
This might sound like a dream for many language enthusiasts, but in some societies, it's normal!
This type of multilingual society occurs on border regions, all throughout the world. In northern Iraq, for instance, people usually speak Kurdish, Turkish, and Iraqi Arabic. And many of them use Modern Standard Arabic and English at school.
In some parts of China, people might learn English at school, speak their city's dialect of Mandarin when out shopping, speak standard Mandarin at work, and perhaps even speak another language when at home with their families.
Some of these people might even say they're bad at languages! When people say this, it's often because they grew up USING these languages, not learning them in school. When they were using a language at a friend's house and got their pronunciation corrected, there was no anxiety involved. This kind of learning is different than learning in a school setting, where tests and classrooms can cause pressure and discomfort.
Media exposure plays a huge role too. Many people around the world are functionally bilingual in English, thanks to TV and YouTube.
Sometimes parents—even in societies where people speak several languages—will put on educational English videos for kids to watch. But what's even more fun is something that's enjoyable for the kids that's already in English.
You can do this too as an adult language learner. There's a time and a place for coursework. But if you're able to shut off the learning part of your brain and simply absorb content you're interested in, you'll be surprised at what you can pick up after a couple of months.
Fourth: Heritage Languages
You might know someone from an immigrant family who speaks a different language at home than they do with everybody else. That language is referred to, academically, as a heritage language - basically, a language that someone learned at home without using it very much anywhere else. You can imagine that such an arrangement would produce huge variation in language ability. Some people have heritage languages that they learned from visiting their grandparents once a week. Others learn it through rigorous homeschooling routines enforced by their parents.
Heritage learners often have some marked differences in their speech compared to speakers who grew up in a monolingual environment.
They might have an accent that’s affected by the dominant language they grew up with. Or they might feel uncomfortable using some grammar or vocabulary that they're not as familiar with.
But on the other hand, they might be able to smoothly use things like tone, grammatical gender, and other aspects of language that are extremely difficult for learners to master. Their listening comprehension is also likely good.
Another big difference is in reading and writing. You probably don't remember, but reading and writing took time to learn.
It may be difficult to motivate yourself (or a child) to learn to read or write in a new language, especially if that language has a different and complicated script. We may be tempted to rely on the reading and writing skills we already have, instead of learning something new. If you have a heritage language and you're working on "reactivating" it, be kind to yourself! Maybe you feel like you "should" know how to read or write in your heritage language, but you don't. And that's okay! You can work on building those skills as any other language learner would.
A great way to build literacy is to read text with audio that you can listen to at the same time. You can use the lesson notes from our language learning program or watch videos with subtitles. This is easy to do from the comfort of your home.
Fifth: Gaining Fluency in a Second Language
There's a lot of divided discussion about whether it's possible to learn a language to a native level. It's important to consider what "native level" means. Maybe a native speaker of your target language can talk about their work flawlessly, but they can't speak in-depth about a topic beyond their field. You don't expect yourself to be able to talk about absolutely everything with 100% perfection in your native language, so don't expect that you'll magically be able to communicate perfectly in the language you're learning either.
Moreover, it's important to remember that nobody speaks flawlessly all the time. We all make mistakes, and we know how to correct ourselves and clarify information.
The best speakers in the world make mistakes, even on stage. Everybody stumbled over their words before. Does that mean they're not fluent in their own language? Of course not.
You can do some amazing things to get a native-like accent in a foreign language, but they all take a great deal of work. Lots of people convince others that they're native speakers for the first few minutes of conversation. Does it really matter if you end up making mistakes after 40 seconds, 40 minutes? Remember, the perfect speech is not required to speak like a native. As we've talked about in this video, lots of bilingual and multilingual people have strengths and weaknesses too.
Sixth: Can a Bilingual Person Forget a Language?
Language skills can deteriorate over time if they are not used. If you're very busy with one language and rarely use the other, you might see a drop in your abilities in the language you don't use as often.
Completely forgetting a language takes a very long time, though. While you might forget a word here and there in one language, you likely won't lose a language completely unless you don't use it for decades.
This is something to think about for anyone who is considering spending their life in another country. Make sure to keep your language skills up. Otherwise, as time goes on, things may be harder and harder to remember.
Being bilingual or multilingual is pretty interesting. A lot of language learners compare themselves to bilinguals or multilinguals. Remember that bilingual and multilingual people put in work too--when they were kids!
So don't feel discouraged if it seems like your own learning is slow. It simply takes time, and that's true for everyone!
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