Bilingualism and Culture

As noted in the earlier section, language can play a large role in the intensity of culture shock and an individual’s adaptation to a new culture. A bilingual or multilingual person can traditionally be defined as an individual who uses (understands and produces) two (or more) languages on a regular basis (Grosjean, 2013). Globally, the majority of individuals who speak English also speak at least one other language fluently.

  • 56% of Europeans speak more than one language (2018 Eurostat Yearbook)
  • 20% of Americans speak more than one language (2016 US Census Report)
  • 19% of Canadians speak more than one language (2018 Government of Canada)

It is not uncommon for individuals in China and Africa to speak many languages. There are 7 major languages in China and more in India and Africa when including specific regional and tribal dialects. Around the global monolingual speakers are the minority (Grosjean, 2013).

A bilingual person’s initial exposure to both languages may have started in early childhood (e.g. before age 3) (Baker, 2006) but exposure may also begin later in life. It is often assumed that bilinguals must be equally proficient in their languages but proficiency typically varies by domain. For example, a bilingual person may have greater proficiency for work-related terms in one language, and family-related terms in another language (Grosjean, 2013).

Takano and Nado (1993) describe the foreign language effect (FLE) which refers to a temporary decline in thinking by those who use a second language rather than their native language. They explain that when an individual is spoken to, in the second language, linguistic processing (not cognitive processing) is necessary for an appropriate response and to accommodate the processing thinking declines. With practice and increased proficiency, the decline diminishes (i.e., interpreters). Using German, Korean and English speakers, the researchers found that the FLE was larger when the discrepancy between the native and foreign languages was greater (e.g., German and Korean) and smaller when the differences between the native and foreign languages were smaller (e.g., German and English) (Takano & Nado, 1995).

Research examining the interaction between bilingual individuals’ first language and second language has shown that both languages have an influence on one another, and on cognitive functioning outside of language. For example, research on executive functions such as working memory, perception, and attentional and inhibitory control, has suggested that bilinguals have cognitive advantages over their monolingual peers (Marian & Shook, 2012).

Psychological and cultural research has identified differences among multilingual and bilingual speakers when speaking the foreign language. For example, Ervin (1964) found that English/French bilinguals demonstrated different characteristics and emotions when telling stories (based on Thematic Apperception Test) in English versus in French. Matsumoto and colleague (2008) found that Spanish and English-speaking Mexican bilinguals were more accurate in judging emotions in English but inferred greater intensity of subjective experience in the expresser in Spanish.

Additionally, there appear to be age-related benefits for bilinguals. Speaking more than one language appears to help older adults reduce cognitive decline and some research has suggested that bilingual ability can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease (Marian & Shook, 2012). It should be noted that there is strong disagreement over how findings on cognitive benefits should be interpreted. Systematic reviews and meta-analyses of studies have found mixed evidence for cognitive advantages in healthy adults. Some have suggested that publication bias (only publishing studies that show positive cognitive benefits) has provided a distorted view of the evidence (Lenhonten, 2013). Though mixed, research results have found support for cognitive, psychological and cultural differences in the experiences of bilingual and multilingual individuals.

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Culture and Psychology by L D Worthy; T Lavigne; and F Romero is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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