Bilingual Confidence: A Double-Edged Sword

“The plasticity of the human brain has unlimited potential… but it is the propensity to consume knowledge which must be guided to [manifest] a positive approach to one’s education.”

 “Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty, hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to talk French.” “The strain was too great. Monty relapsed into his native tongue.” (P.G. Wodehouse, The Luck of the Bodkins)

 Feel familiar? The awkward pause before you reply to internally check you’ve chosen the correct verb; the clammy palms denunciating your accent and intonation, all but confusing your conversation partner leaving you feeling lost in translation? P.G. Wodehouse perfectly captures the feeling of an [impending] language barrier. Now imagine you are also trying to navigate the learning of a myriad of facts, figures, and friendships whilst translating languages being spoken and received on the path to fluency.

 Language is necessary for basic human interaction whether it’s spoken, signed or written. The emergence of language learning stems from a “complex interplay of neural, cognitive and social factors that have evolved over time”. The neural elements develop until the child has a range of words to use and can continue adding to their lexicon. Whilst this proves complex within single language schemas, it is not impossible for the brain to learn multiple languages. Depending on the intensity and when this occurs, the brain shows tendency to prioritize the linguistic development ahead of the acquisition of additional algorithm learning such as mathematics. This is a prime example of the Piagetian description of the child actively navigating their individual course of development.

 To ensure optimal performance in development, the individual brain requires order; thus a system of retrieval likened to one of a good filing system is created to ensure swift memory recall. However as the brain is growing, and learning how to file, the system may slow down. The brain is hyper-active at this stage (childhood), with thousands of synapses firing signals and connecting with each-other. As such it is important that the child is supported in one language which they can master, or in which they can become fluent Additional languages can be laterally consumed and learnt by a young child, but as they now have to navigate a more complex filing system, they must be exposed to patience and care as the second linguistic layer is added to the mix.

A child fluent in more than one language at a young age employs immense cognitive processing. In fact, studies have highlighted that as the multilingual child ages there are stronger attention and task-switching capacities than the monolingual brain. The side effects to a child who learns more than one language are evident though. There is only so much that can go through the fibre-optics cable in the house. Analogically, the whole house is using the wifi and it slows down. The multilingual child may experience periods of lower-than-expected performance in certain subjects, or demonstrate difficulty in subjects such as mathematics, which require logical processing. This can be worrying for parents - but in the case of multi-language speakers one must remember that there is a propensity for a child to be processing a greater amount of information. It is imperative that children have support structures in place to allow them to feel confident to use their languages, freeing up cognitive tension, which slows alternative processing.

 Mentors can be of immense help when it comes to working alongside the child to actively navigate a course of development - if they’re learning a language, the algorithm centres of the brain are switched on and likely to perform well mathematically as they grow older. Whilst there is no denying that a conscientious approach to studying often leads to success, as with life there is a limit. Mentors work with their mentee to develop a game or progress plan to help cultivate the child’s ambitions in a positive direction. The plasticity of the human brain has unlimited potential capacity, but it is the propensity to consume knowledge which must guided to become that of a positive approach to one’s education. 

By Olivia Buckland

Olivia graduated from Cambridge University (English & Education) in 2018 and joined Oppidan in December. Olivia is Oppidan’s Partnership Manager and in charge of school and commercial partners.