So THAT’s why I don’t feel as smart as I used to

This is an interesting piece brought to my attention by Stan Dubinsky:

SPEAKING two languages rather than just one has obvious practical benefits in an increasingly globalized world. But in recent years, scientists have begun to show that the advantages of bilingualism are even more fundamental than being able to converse with a wider range of people. Being bilingual, it turns out, makes you smarter. It can have a profound effect on your brain, improving cognitive skills not related to language and even shielding against dementia in old age.

This view of bilingualism is remarkably different from the understanding of bilingualism through much of the 20th century. Researchers, educators and policy makers long considered a second language to be an interference, cognitively speaking, that hindered a child’s academic and intellectual development.

They were not wrong about the interference: there is ample evidence that in a bilingual’s brain both language systems are active even when he is using only one language, thus creating situations in which one system obstructs the other. But this interference, researchers are finding out, isn’t so much a handicap as a blessing in disguise. It forces the brain to resolve internal conflict, giving the mind a workout that strengthens its cognitive muscles….

Set aside the fact that this NYT piece is written by one Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, who probably speaks at least two languages, since this is written in English. It fits with what I’ve read and heard elsewhere — aside from the fact that it stands to reason.

It also gives me a clue as to why I used to feel so much smarter when I was a kid than I do now. When I was a kid, I spoke Spanish as easily and smoothly as English. I thought in Spanish, I dreamed in Spanish. I learned the language at what was probably the last possible moment for learning it as easily as I did — when I was 9.

I learned it the best way, in a sense — from being forced to speak it. From the time my family arrived in Guayaquil, Ecuador, most of the people I encountered spoke no English. I did take Spanish as a course in school, but that had little effect, as I recall. Probably a bigger factor was that I took half of my courses in Spanish — including history, geography and science. That was at the Colegio Americano. I was in the Clase Especial, which didn’t quite mean what it means here. There, it meant I was in the one class in my grade that was for native English speakers, and that the classes I took in Spanish were actually a grade-level behind my English classes. Near as I could tell, that didn’t put me behind my peers when I got back to the states. And I certainly knew a lot more than the other kids back home about Latin American history. Not that anybody up here cares about that.

I learned a lot of my Spanish at home as well. My Dad at the time was a lieutenant commander in the Navy, which made us modestly middle class at home. But there, we had two maids, one of whom lived with us 24 hours a day. And no, it wasn’t like Downton Abbey. But the maids had no English, and I interacted with them constantly — I had to, to get through the day. The first word I remember learning from them by way of context happened the first couple of days we were in the country. One of the maids started working for us while we were still staying in the Humboldt Hotel on the waterfront. She took us for walk one day along the quay  (with me probably fuming because, at 9, I felt no need for a babysitter), holding my little brother’s hand. He was only 3, and of course he wanted to touch everything. She would pull him away, saying in an urgent, admonitory tone, “Sucio!” It wasn’t hard to figure out that that meant “dirty.”

Anyway, when we came back to the states two-and-a-half years later, I had this ability that I was seldom called upon to use. I only took Spanish once in school subsequently, and of course aced the course — even though my grammar going in wasn’t so hot (the result of having learned the language naturalistically, and sometimes from people whose own language skills weren’t the best). When I went to college, my skills were still good enough for me to test out of having to take any foreign language at all.

But since then… it’s been slipping away from me.

About a decade or so ago, we started having masses in Spanish at St. Peter’s. I became one of those who would read the Gospel in Spanish at mass. To do this, I read it aloud multiple times before I leave home, just to warm up the necessary muscles in my tongue and mouth — otherwise, I can’t do the accent. My accent still isn’t perfect when I get up there and read (to my critical ear), but it’s better than that of people who learned as adults. It’s good enough that folks who have no English come up to me after Mass and ask me questions, which only embarrasses me and causes me to say, “Lo siento, pero necesitas hablar con María…” and refer them to our Hispanic Minister.

Because the thing is, I can hardly understand a word they’re saying to me. When I do speak the language (and I only fully understand what I’m reading if I look up some of the words), it’s very halting. And to my mortification, whether speaking or listening, I have to translate the words or idiomatic phrases in my head — which would never have been necessary when I was a kid.

So I think being bilingual made me smarter — I remember the couple of years after I came back as a time when everything, from school subjects to popular culture, gave me a fantastic rush in my brain as I soaked it all up.

But I don’t think I’m that smart any more.

13 thoughts on “So THAT’s why I don’t feel as smart as I used to

  1. bud

    Not that it’s quite the same thing but I recall feeling superior to my peers because I was completely unafraid of heights. I’d get on top of the house or garage without the slightest hint of fear. We’d pile pinestraw up under the roof and I’d jump in without hesitation.

    But somewhere along the way I became seriously afraid of heights. It is all I can do to get on the rather low, flat roof of our house to sweep the leaves off. Climbing the ladder is an exercise in shear terror. What a difference since the time I was 12.

  2. `Kathryn Fenner

    Apparently there are huge and lasting benefits to learning a second language at a young enough age to become fluent at it, and they do not dissipate. If you got back into the swing of it, it would come back very rapidly.I’m finding that my German, which was barely fluent thirty years ago, is coming back as I work on it.

    The one benefit of being monolingual is that your vocabulary is much stronger–you score higher on the verbal SAT, for example.

  3. Brad

    Hmmm… not sure I buy that. I’m pretty sure my English vocabulary is above average, and I did quite well on the verbal SAT.

    Of course, I did better on the math. But doesn’t everybody?

  4. Brad

    My Spanish vocabulary, on the other hand, is atrocious. I can’t think of the simplest words. I might RECOGNIZE a word if you throw it at me, but if I have to come up with it myself, I’m generally out of luck.

    Hablo como un gringo.

    Porque yo SOY un gringo, y nada mas. Estoy triste a pensarlo…

  5. Doug Ross

    I work in a technical field where I deal with a large percentage of people who speak English as a second language. It doesn’t help them perform better – in fact, their inability to WRITE English seriously hampers their ability to be effective.

  6. `Kathryn Fenner

    But how do you know that you would not have aced the SAT otherwise?

    Realistically, you are obviously a verbal adept with vocab to burn….

    Why not practice your Spanish? Plenty more opportunities to do so than I have to practice German!

  7. Steven Davis II

    “Why not practice your Spanish? Plenty more opportunities to do so than I have to practice German!”

    Does Brad go to the flea markets?

  8. `Kathryn Fenner

    @Silence– Gute Idee!
    Es gibt ein Stammtisch, der jeder Monat in verschiedene Restaurants und Bars trifft. Ich weiss nicht wenn oder wo. Ich wurde es recherchieren!

  9. `Kathryn Fenner

    @Doug– They aren’t actually bilingual then–Steve has the same problem with students who apparently fudged the TOEFL exam somehow.

  10. SusanG

    I know back when I was in graduate school at USC and took a class in the comp sci department, the professor didn’t even really lecture, since so many of the students couldn’t follow English well enough for it to be worth his time. I was pretty disappointed by the class because of that — you had to kind of just teach it to yourself by reading the book. (I admit, though, that was “back in the day”).

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