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. 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. Is there 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?
We may think if there could be an Apple Square next to the Big Apple Corner; we can make pineapple or apple cubic chunks for a fruit salad; in fables or science-fiction, we can talk about orchards to grow square apples.
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. A cardiac case might serve a game of opinion with them.
To think what the world is really: both English and 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 form 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. For language acquisition, experiments are unnecessary: it is enough to listen and talk. Unnatural verbal exchange, as speaking tailored to experimental purposes, is likely to bring fake effects. 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. Language science cannot need such scans. Feel welcome to read.
Human brains, parameters, and devices