Let’s leave the pros and cons of bilingualism out of politics

Whichever language you speak, you are welcome. Welcome via ivosar/www.shutterstock.com

This election, we have been repeatedly told our nation is just like a household that must balance its books. We must count up pounds and pence, establish the economic value of all things. And that most human asset – language – has not escaped this cost-checking culture. The pros and cons of British bilingualism are being weighed with a shrewd bursar’s eye.

Language is a wonder of the natural world. Anthropologist Wade Davis poetically calls it “the flash of the human spirit, a vehicle through which the soul of each particular culture comes into the material world”. Our ability to process language, whether we speak one language or five, is a mind-boggling feat of complexity. From minute to minute, without a second thought, we make well-formed utterances, plucking words from among the 30,000 or so in our minds in milliseconds.

Yet, positive or negative, this most unquantifiable of riches is rarely discussed except in instrumentalist terms, for its costs and its profits. Whether it is Boris Johnson’s railing at taxi drivers, Nigel Farage’s rants against the workers upon whom the NHS relies, or even media reports that bilingual people are cognitive superheroes, the frame of the discussion is the same.

Muddled messages

The data behind such cost-checking claims is often poorly equipped for task. Our schools are said to be weighed down by the burden of children who speak English as a second language, the number of such children having “soared” to more than 1.1m.

But figures on children with English as a second language are usually taken from the Department for Education’s school census, which does not collect information on the order in which children learn their languages. The census instead uses “exposure” to other languages as a proxy for having English as a second (by implication weaker) language. On this basis all bilingual children, even those for whom English is the stronger language, are bundled up under the same heading. A more fitting statistic for the cost-checking argument might be the proportion of children needing some level of interpreting to make sense of the class, but this is not part of the school census.

A poster at a council office in Peterborough. Chris Radburn/PA Archive

Language learning is also sold to us in instrumentalist terms, with a focus on the benefits to business earnings and boosts to our brain power. Though linguistic researchers have long been convinced that bilingualism is inherently valuable in its own right, recent research advances on the relationship between bilingualism and cognitive function cause particular excitement. The former secretary of state for education, Michael Gove, has confidently proclaimed that learning a language makes you smarter. The Conservative manifesto promises to make a language GCSE compulsory for all – though Labour has criticised recent plans for exam boards to reduce the range of languages available.

However, we must be cautious. Researchers are still disentangling the complexities behind headlines about a bilingual cognitive advantage. If “cleverness” or “employability” are the only benefits of bilingualism’s worth that we focus on, the focus is still one of cost checking.

In the 1920s, bilingual children were thought to be “behind in school, retarded in measured intelligence, and socially adrift”. Cognitive psychologist Raymond Klein cautions that the pendulum of opinion about bilingual benefits to cognition, once firmly positioned against the value of speaking many languages, might best be parked in neutral for a while.

Different view of the world

While the pendulum swings and election campaigning builds to a frenzy, it’s important not to lose sight of more inherent value. As much as an insurance policy against cognitive decline in old age or a slightly larger salary appeal to me, I envy those who have grown up speaking several languages for more fundamental reasons than this.

Their view of the world is wider than mine. They tell me words for the same things “taste” different in their mouths, like the English soul “mate” that becomes a “sister” soul in French (ame soeur), the deeper satisfaction of switching into Punjabi to swear with gusto, or the ability of some languages to carry lyricism without becoming saccharine. And anyone who uses another variety of English such as that in the Black Country or Newcastle – considered by some a cognitive mirror of bilingualism on a smaller scale – knows that the flavour of an expression simply gets lost sometimes when it is translated into standard English.

These reasons, and more, will remain compelling whatever the twists and turns of our understanding of language in the brain, or the latest pre-election scare story about language and immigration.

All this relentless coalition stock-taking, this fretting by the political class over whether taxi drivers are linguistically equipped to serve them, or whether children with rich language repertoires are a worrisome burden, means we risk missing the riches that are right in front of us.


Next read: Theresa May’s hidden British value – monolingualism