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Multilingual Environments Enrich Our Understanding of Others

Exposure to multiple languages improves the ability to see another perspective.

Pixabay/Free Image
Source: Pixabay/Free Image

Even if you're not bilingual, exposure to multiple languages improves the ability to put yourself in someone else's shoes and see the world from another perspective. A new study by psychologists at the University of Chicago found that young children who hear more than one language spoken at home become better communicators and are able to understand different points of view.

Being a good communicator requires the ability to be a good listener, as well as, knowing how to interpret another person’s perspectives and different points of view. The researchers at University of Chicago discovered that children who are exposed to multilingual environments are better at interpreting the meaning of a conversation than children who are only exposed to the monolingual environment of their native tongue.

The researchers were surprised to discover that a child didn’t have to be bilingual to reap these benefits—simply being exposed to more than one language improved social communication skills. It also appears that multilingual environments improve a child’s “theory of mind.”  

Theory of mind (often abbreviated "ToM") is the ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc.—to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, and intentions that are different from one's own.

A variety of previous studies have confirmed the benefits of being bilingual on a child's cognitive development. The May 2015 study, “The Exposure Advantage: Early Exposure to a Multilingual Environment Promotes Effective Communication,” was published online by the journal Psychological Science. This is the first study to demonstrate the social benefits of being exposed to multiple languages.

In a press release, study co-author Boaz Keysar said, "This study is part of a bigger research program that attempts to explain how humans learn to communicate. Children are really good at acquiring language. They master the vocabulary and the syntax of the language, but they need more tools to be effective communicators. A lot of communication is about perspective taking, which is what our study measures."

Each child who participated in the study sat on one side of a table across from an adult and played a communication game that required moving objects in a grid. The child was able to see all of the objects from his or her perspective, but the adult on the other side of the grid had some squares that blocked visibility of all the objects. To make sure that children understood that the adult couldn’t see everything, each child first played the game from the adult's side with blocked visibility.

The researchers found that monolingual children weren't as good at understanding the adult's intended meaning during the game. Surprisingly, the mere exposure to another language improved the ability of a child to understand the adult's perspective and select the correct objects almost as well as the children who were bilingual.

The children in the multilingual exposure group correctly selected the objects from the adult's perspective 76 percent of the time, and the bilingual group took the adult's perspective in the game correctly 77 percent of the time. The children exposed to a strictly monolingual home environment had about a 50 percent success rate.

"Children in multilingual environments have extensive social practice in monitoring who speaks what to whom, and observing the social patterns and allegiances that are formed based on language usage," explained Katherine Kinzler, associate professor of psychology and an expert on language and social development. "These early socio-linguistic experiences could hone children's skills at taking other people's perspectives and provide them tools for effective communication."’

Did You Grow Up in a Multilingual Environment?  

Unfortunately, I wasn’t exposed to a multilingual environment when I was a young child. I was born and raised on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Although New York City is historically the ultimate melting pot, my hometown zip code of 10065 is a relatively homogenized environment. Luckily, my mother worked for René Dubos at the Rockefeller Institute and was determined that my sisters and I get as much exposure to multiculturalism and diversity as possible.  

Dubos was a French-born microbiologist, humanist, and United Nations ambassador who coined the phrase, “Think Globally, Act Locally.” In the 1960s he became concerned with the encroaching danger that humans could lose touch with our evolutionary roots and our "humanness" in an industrialized world. 

He described the typical modern work environment saying, “Most people spend their days in a confusion of concrete and steel, trapped in the midst of noise, dirt, ugliness and absurdity." In 1969, René Dubos won The Pulitzer Prize for So Human, an Animal: How We Are Shaped by Surroundings and Events. As his personal secretary, my mom typed this manuscript.   

Dubos was fascinated by the interplay between environmental forces and the physical, mental, and spiritual development of mankind. The main tenets of his humanistic philosophy were: global problems are conditioned by local circumstances and that human beings have the free-will to make choices and change our circumstances.

At the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, Dubos suggested that ecological consciousness should begin locally and at home. Dubos advocated for the creation of a world order in which "natural and social units maintain or recapture their identity, yet interplay with each other through a rich system of communications." The new study from the University of Chicago on the importance of multilingual environments on improved communication echoes the ideas of Dubos in my mind. 

Dubos was a mentor to my mom. When she was pregnant with her first child, she and my dad decided to name their first born boy or girl after René Dubos. . . hence my older sister’s name, Renée. The ideas of René Dubos literally got into the DNA of my entire family when we were living on York Avenue.

In the 1970s, the influence of Dubos pushed my parents to go on sabbatical and take me and my sisters out of school for a year to travel around the world and visit remote regions of the globe that were still untouched by industrialization. Homeschooling while living a nomadic existence in foreign indigenous cultures was my 6th grade classroom. Although globetrotting didn't technically create a very "academic" environment, it was probably the best education I could have gotten as an 11-year-old.

As a family, we visited every continent on the planet during that trip. My parents purposely took us off the beaten path and far away from tourist traps. Even though we stayed in Westernized hotels for the most part, my mom always strived to immerse us in the local cultures by taking public transportation and traveling third class on buses and trains.

Traveling around the world like the Swiss Family Robinson when I was a kid wasn’t necessarily “fun." That said, I do credit the exposure to other cultures and languages at an impressionable period with making me a more empathetic human being. Even though I'm not bilingual, being exposed to so many different languages on that trip probably improved my theory of mind much more than if I’d spent my entire childhood sheltered in a monolingual Upper East Side enclave.

Witnessing the poverty and suffering that so many people around the globe endure first hand when I was eleven made me appreciate how blessed I was to be born in the United States. It also made me a zealot for advancing René Dubos’ ideas personally, and publicly, whenever possible.

My 7-year-old daughter is currently growing up in a somewhat homogenized zip code without an abundance of multilingualism. Fortunately, her mother hails from Finland, speaks five languages fluently, and puts a premium on multilingual environments. Our daughter attends a total-immersion French speaking school and Swedish is the native tongue spoken almost as much as English in the home.

As a parent, this new study from University of Chicago reinforces the importance of multilingual environments. If you're a parent, hopefully these findings will encourage you to seek out linguistic diversity for your children whenever possible—even if your child doesn't actually learn a second language.

Conclusion: Monolingual Environments Can Promote Homogenized Perspectives

The University of Chicago researchers emphasize that "language is social." Being exposed to multiple languages gives children diverse social experiences, promotes the ability to understand another person's perspective, as well as, improves their communication skills.

These discoveries on the benefits of multilingual environments could have important policy making implications. Hopefully, realizing the benefits of multilingual environments can help diminish xenophobia and take the wind out of the sails for any politically motivated agendas that promote “English Only” environments.

Katherine Kinzler concluded, “Some parents seem wary of second-language exposure for their young children. . . Yet, in addition to learning another language, their children might unintentionally be getting intensive training in perspective taking, which could make them better communicators in any language.”

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