Let them learn Mandarin: why foreign languages are good for the brain.


Not for the first time (nor, one suspects, the last) BBC Radio Four’s flagship news programme Today has indulged in a silly and uninformed debate about language.  You can listen to it here:


John Humphrys is a professional radio journalist. He is generally known for his aggressive interviewing style, though to me he is more renowned as a classic bad linguist; he has little knowledge of the subject, very strong opinions and easy access to the mass media. His two books about the mangling of English (Lost for Words and Beyond Words) are collections of personal bugbears about other people’s language, coupled with gloomy predictions about English going to the dogs. The usual nonsense.

In the Today programme  John Humphrys invited the Shadow Foreign Office minister Chris Bryant to explain his recent assertion that French is a useless language to teach in British schools. Our country would be better served, apparently, by its children getting lessons in more useful languages like Mandarin, Arabic or Spanish. Dr Eckhardt Lubkemeier from the German Embassy was there to make the point that in his country English is the first foreign language offered to all school children because of its useful status as a world language. Other foreign languages come later.

Before the discussion can develop about what makes a language important enough for it to be taught in schools, or what makes a language attractive enough for children to want to learn it, John Humphrys butts in. He says you can stop people in the street in Germany and they will speak back to you in English, and he laughs at the thought of anyone in the UK addressing  a passer-by in a foreign language and getting an answer. Clearly it’s our own stupid fault. As a nation we are utterly useless at foreign languages. And this is not good for us because being bilingual makes you more intelligent. Or so he thinks.

Bad linguists love assertions about language based on personal anecdote and/or vague references of research somewhere done by ‘them’. This is Humphrys on how he knows that bilingualism increases intelligence:

“What they have discovered since they have been teaching many, many more children in Wales through the medium of Welsh, [is that] they are learning Welsh and that is improving their overall academic capabilities. I’ve got grandchildren who speak fluently a number of different languages from the age of zero, and they are brighter. I don’t think there is any doubt about that.”

Now, I am happy to accept that John Humphrys’ grandchildren are bright.  But there is no way to test whether their brightness has been influenced by being fluent in a number of languages. It remains an assertion, possibly coloured by grandfatherly pride.  It is not hard to test whether there is a statistically significant difference between the measured intelligence of monolinguals and bilinguals, and it has in fact been done. As far as I know, no-one has turned up evidence of any difference at all. Bilingualism neither increases nor decreases intelligence. It’s neutral. If Welsh-medium teaching has had a good effect in Wales, it’s not down to the pupils’ brains getting a linguistic boost.

Even if we can dismiss the claim that language learning is good for the brain, we are left with the idea that language learning is good for the economy. This is surely Chris Bryant’s point: we should invest vast quantities of public funds in teaching languages such as Mandarin, Arabic or Spanish because we need the next generation of British entrepreneurs to have those language skills when they wade into the markets of South America, China and the Middle East.

Alas, you can lead a child to a language but you cannot make him learn it. Although inspired teaching and frequent exposure are important for success, the crucial factor remains motivation; children will not apply themselves to learn a language unless they see the need. If the world of the internet, blockbuster films, popular music, and international sport were mostly conducted in French or Danish or Russian, British children would eagerly and successfully learn French  or Danish or Russian because it would be cool. If you want to teach them Chinese or Arabic or Spanish, then those languages need to get much cooler than they are now.

At the close of the discussion Dr Eckhardt Lubkemeier  returns to the assertion that language learning is not all about mere usefulness. Mental skills, creativity, and logical thinking are all promoted, he says, by learning a foreign language. Not only does he need a bit of empirical evidence for these claims, he also needs to show how he would sell the promise of increased logical thinking, creativity and mental skills to a class of typical British schoolchildren. It would surely be as difficult as selling them the idea that when they are grown up they can use their Mandarin to negotiate contracts  in China.


8 thoughts on “Let them learn Mandarin: why foreign languages are good for the brain.

  1. Hi Pauline,I’m really enjoying your blog. I came across it after the QES Academy nonsense the other week. I think someone pointed me in your direction after I tweeted about it.I think BBC podcasts tend to disappear after a week. Even if they’re around longer, as your link is to the generic Today podcast page, late arrivals may not be able to find it. I’m sure the BBC won’t object too much to it being archived elsewhere. Like here, for instance:http://bit.ly/TodayLangPodcast

  2. I think having children learn foreign languages at a young age (elementary or even younger) gives them an intuitive feel for language — that the translation is not word for word; it’s more phrase by phrase with different word order and grammar depending on the foreign language. My kids also notice similarities with different languages; they are learning Spanish and Chinese.So, does learning foreign languages good for their brain? Why wouldn’t it be? They say that prevention for Alzheimer’s is from working out the brain — learning a foreign language, doing crossword puzzles, or learning an instrument. Clearly, learning a foreign language is challenging for the brain so it is like a workout at the gym for the brain.In any case, it helps to create world citizens who can participate fully in this new global economy that our children will face. And it makes the world a friendlier place.Foreign Languages. I call it the gift I give to my kids that keeps on giving.Pragmatic MomType A Parenting for the Modern Worldhttp://PragmaticMom.comI blog on education, parenting and children’s lit

  3. <HTML dir=ltr><HEAD> <META content="text/html; charset=unicode" http-equiv=Content-Type> <META name=GENERATOR content="MSHTML 8.00.7600.16588"></HEAD> <BODY> <DIV dir=ltr id=idOWAReplyText72657> <DIV dir=ltr><FONT color=#000000 size=4 face="Times New Roman">Perhaps I did not make myself clear. I&nbsp;was&nbsp;pointing out&nbsp;that there is no research evidence whatsoever that bilingualism makes a&nbsp;child more intelligent. Intelligence is equally distributed among monolingual and multilingual children.</FONT></DIV> <DIV dir=ltr><FONT size=4></FONT>&nbsp;</DIV> <DIV dir=ltr><FONT size=4>And</FONT><FONT color=#000000 size=4 face="Times New Roman"> </FONT><FONT size=4>I am most certainly <EM>not</EM> saying that children shouldn’t be encouraged to&nbsp;acquire another language.&nbsp;Complex skills (language, music, chess) are wonderful accomplishments, not because&nbsp;they are&nbsp;’good’ for the brain,&nbsp;(whatever that means) but because&nbsp;they are&nbsp;so interesting. They are also harder to acquire when you are grown up, so you have to start young. I think it’s great that you are encouraging your children to learn Mandarin and Spanish.</FONT></DIV> <DIV dir=ltr><FONT size=4></FONT>&nbsp;</DIV> <DIV dir=ltr><FONT size=4>I think everyone should have a second or third language. In fact, most people in the world today do, and that’s because they&nbsp;grow up&nbsp;in multilingual environments where one language is just not enough. Unfortunately, the vast majority of British children live in an environment where&nbsp; their first language&nbsp;works locally, nationally and internationally. It is this more than anything which makes British children generally&nbsp;uninterested in foreign languages.&nbsp;</FONT><FONT color=#000000 size=4 face="Times New Roman"></FONT></DIV></DIV> <DIV dir=ltr id=idSignature17225> <DIV>&nbsp;</DIV></DIV> <DIV> <DIV style="LINE-HEIGHT: 18px; WIDTH: 600px; FONT-FAMILY: Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif; FONT-SIZE: 12px" class=PosterousEmail></DIV></DIV></BODY></HTML>

  4. Good blog. Why indeed do we have to learn more than one language?From my point of view, whenever children learn something new (whateverthat may be), they are able to exercise their brain by practisingtheir logical, critical or creative thinking. This also includeslanguage(s) used by their parents or teachers. Although we might saythat children can be developed further by learning language we cannotsay that it can make them more intelligent.The belief that foreign language learning is essential tocompetitiveness has become a cliche. In this day and age and with theglobal nature of business, you don’t need to learn every singlelanguage of each market that you want to penetrate (you probably won’teven have the time to do that anyway). Why should you, when you canjust as easily choose an effective interpreter or <ahref="http://www.rosettatranslation.com/london/">translation company</a>? Particularly ones that specialize in helping you with your businesscommunications.

  5. So far I haven’t read any scientific article on whether learning a (or more) foreign language(s) enhances the capacity of brain, but I have on whether it makes people more resistant to some neurological and other diseases. It’s proved that using some foreign languages actively by constantly reading, writing, or speaking, people catch Alzheimer’s disease less than the ones who do not. I also believe that whenever you don’t waste your time, instead read anything, draw something on paper, solve mathematical questions or puzzles, or talk to someone satisfactorily, more synaptical connections occur and brain’s capacity enlarges as much as you use it. Even no need to mention learning foreign languages, to me knowing a foreign language equals having two brains, because your conecptual thinking depends on two different languages.

  6. Hi AivazYou are right that research shows being actively bilingual can stave off Alzheimer’s by a few years, and you are right also that any complex brain activity like maths and chess can have the same effect. But I am not sure I’d go along with the idea that bilinguals have two ways of conceptual thinking because they command two languages….

  7. "Intelligence is equally distributed among monolingual and multilingual children" That’s pretty much what I’ve always suspected. Humphry probably never took a course in statistics.

  8. What a silly idea. Learning a foreign language doesn’t make anybody smarter. It has its benefits of course. Books which are not translated into English and which might happen to be helpful for a researcher somewhere. That makes one better informed maybe, but not smarter. Learning German can make me understand Rammstein’s songs, which is the only barrier that keeps me from listening to them, since I actually like their sound. Listening to foreign musicians/singers and reading research in a foreign language does not make one smarter. That Humphrys guy in my opinion confuses information with intelligence.

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