Why We Should Embrace Bilingualism

“If I had to sacrifice my children’s proficiency in one language for multiple languages, advantages in cognitive performance and health, I would happily do them that favor.”

As a mother and Hmong woman, one of my greatest concern is in preserving our unique and exquisite language: Hmong. If we could statistically state the number of youth who are unable to articulate the language coherently, I am almost sure it is safe to say more than half of children ages two to ten cannot fluently speak Hmong.  That presumed statistic is extremely frightening to me and it should also worry you.  We should be concerned because losing our language is one of the most efficient way in obliterating our own identity.

Few parents, like myself, have tried to preserve our language by using Hmong as the primary language to communicate with our children.  However, to my amazement, there has been and continues to exist multiple disadvantages causing the desire to preserve our language to become a battle. Many of us have become extremely comfortable using English as our primary language which resulted in our preference to communicate with friends, families, and children in English.  This is not to say that for those of us who have preferred accordingly are horrible or are the problem to our diminishing language but to emphasize that we indirectly and unwittingly create disadvantages to preserving our own language. Although I speak primarily Hmong to my children, their father, aunts, uncles, cousins, and even sometimes their grandparents strictly speak English to them.  This has been a huge disadvantage because I got to witness my child’s primary language for communication shift between both languages.  My three-year-old speaks a great variety of Hmong words with me but often responds in English, although he demonstrates a great understanding of what I say in Hmong.

Another disadvantage which I believe is most detrimental to the preservation of our language are individuals who have rationalized being fluent in one’s own native tongue is an embarrassment.  Those who have this mindset believe being extraordinarily fluent in the dominant language (e.g., English) is a representation of intelligence — fluency equates to higher intelligence and enable one to outperform their colleagues.  However, I beg to differ.  My hopes are to raise an awareness for friends, families, parents, and individuals who have an opportunity to naturally be bilingual to embrace bilingualism.  Out of frustration, curiosity, and desperation I read multiple research and studies conducted on the benefits of bilingualism to share with every single person who has and will create disadvantages to preserving their native language.  My hopes are to reverse the rationale of being bilingual an embarrassment and disadvantage to understanding bilingualism as a gift and admirable asset.

Studies have shown five dominant benefits of bilingualism: advance executive function, inhibitory control, advance cognitive and sensory processing, and maintaining cognitive reverse.  All benefits sound confusing but after sufficient researching it started to sound more convincing than ever to continue to embrace speaking my native tongue and to continue to instill that in my children. I will not go over each benefit but over those I feel most important to know the next time we rationalize bilingualism as an embarrassment and disadvantage to learning.

Advance Executive Function

Executive function is an ability that is continuously developing as we age.  It allows us to successfully multi-task, self-regulate, memorize, strategically plan and to focus our attention.  Studies show that the languages a bilingual person speaks is always active in the brain.  One language is never dominant over the other however, the bilingual individual’s brain has developed the ability override one over the other.  This continuous competition between both languages strengthen the brain’s executive function, resulting in greater performance at tasks which involve focusing, strategically planning, and multi-tasking.

Inhibitory Control

Studies show bilingual individuals outperform monolingual individuals in tasks requiring ignoring competing perception information and switching between two tasks.  This is due to bilingual individuals’ ability to ignore irrelevant information and focus on those that are important to the task, also known as inhibitory control.  Due to this ability, bilingual individuals are also able to outperform their monolingual peers on tasks involving categorizing.

Cognitive Reverse

As we age, we cannot escape the devastating truth of the diminishing function of the brain.  Being bilingual is a great asset as it helps to delay, if not entirely, defeat declination of the brain.  As we age the network’s in our brains start to decline and become damage, however for bilingual people the damaged networks are compensated by the bilingual experience the individuals had during their earlier days.

Disadvantages of Bilingualism

The only real disadvantage to any person who is bilingual is their inability to become proficient in any one of the two languages he or she speaks, which is not a concern of mine at all.

I am proud to say my English is not the greatest neither is my Hmong.  However, I can switch between the two languages freely and defeat the language barriers that exist between youth today and older Hmong folks.  I can understand customs, values, and morals of our culture and most importantly can instill in my children the significance of our culture and language.  If I had to sacrifice my children’s proficiency in one language for multiple languages, advantages in cognitive performance and health, I would happily do them that favor.  My wishes are that we continue to speak our language, teach our language, and value the benefits of being bilingual.  Not every person has the opportunity to be bilingual, therefore we should embrace bilingualism.

Always,

Linda

 

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