Speaking a second language can change everything from problem-solving skills to personality. It is almost as if you are two people, says Catherine de Lange.
“Mon espirit paratage — My two minds”, appeared in the New Scientist of May 5th, 2012. The Washington Post included her article online.
Ms. de Lange’s purpose was to compare monolingual and bilingual children in tests on syntax, that is, ways to put words together. She wrote:
Both monolinguals and bilinguals could see the mistake in phrases such as “apples growed on trees”, but differences arose when they considered nonsensical sentences such as “apples grow on noses”. The monolinguals, flummoxed by the silliness of the phrase, incorrectly reported an error, whereas the bilinguals gave the right answer.
Children get to hear or read fairy tales. Whether the kid speaks one or more languages, it is only important that he or she comprehends the words: there was a fairy land, a long time ago, where apples grew on noses.
Ms. de Lange did not present her tasks in the article. It is probable she had misconstrued them deictically. The children did not know what noses the talk was about; whether to focus on syntax or pragmatics, that is, on talk in context.
Let us consider two examples of deictically misconstrued questions.
Picture 1. Do we have a real nose here?
A sculpture of a human face is not a human face, and pictures are not the objects they present.
Picture 2. Could we have an apple square?
There could be an Apple Square next to the Big Apple Corner; we can cut pineapples or apples into cubes; in fables or science-fiction, entire orchards might grow square apples only.
Without additional information on the context, we cannot answer. Children happen to take up tasks without telling there is a problem. Saying there is something wrong is more of a grown-up business.
Ms. de Lange wrote she spoke English and French. Let us think what the world would have to become, to adopt her study.
Monolingual speakers of French would carry shields instead of umbrellas, for heavy rain. They would belong with the people who get “flummoxed” with figures of speech, and it rains halberds in French, when it rains cats and dogs in English (in which latter case we would have to think monolingual English people cannot keep appointments, staying home).
We would have to dread multilingual medics. They would be the people not to care what words mean literally, and a cardiac case might serve a game of opinion:
Notes for Emily Dickinson’s poetry | Fascicles and print, the poetic correlative with Webster 1828, Latin and Greek inspiration, an Aristotelian motif, Things perpetual — these are not in time, but in eternity. More→
What the world is really like: both the languages, English as well as French, have spoken and written forms. What we write as bread in English is un pain, in French. What we write as pain in English, is nothing even potentially pleasant, whatever the language.
Speakers of English and French have had much contact, in history as well. It must be that people rely on semantics, that is, word sense. Word shape alone is not sufficient to make the psychological reality of language. Otherwise, either the French or the English (or both peoples) would have changed their words. It depends on deictics, if we say a word has another meaning.
Experimentation on children raises ethical concerns. More, it is likely to bring fake effects, when you tailor speech for experimental verbal exchange with a child. For language acquisition, it is good to listen and talk. Practice on virtual words usually helps syntax, with no difference between monolingual and multilingual people.
A very serious ethical concern comes with Ms. de Lange reporting infant brain scans for experimental purposes. There is no way to obtain informed consent from an infant. On the side of language science, such scans would not bring insight.
Feel welcome to read:
Human brains, parameters, and devices
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