ISA hosts discussion on importance of bilingualism

Meghan Morris

The International Student Association and Ask Big Questions hosted a discussion Thursday night at the Buffett Center about the importance of bilingualism in a global society. Professors and students weighed the positives and negatives of learning languages in addition to English.

After a dinner of Asian food from Joy Yee’s, professors John Paluch, Jill Felten and Viorica Marian spoke about their experiences as multilingual speakers and professors. About 40 people attended the two-hour event.

Paluch, a German professor, said the vast majority of Americans do not need to understand a second language because English is so dominant. However, he encouraged students to study languages in order to broaden their opportunities.

“I work as hard as I can to get students to go abroad and experience a new culture because it’s really eye-opening,” Paluch said.

Students participating in the discussion came mainly from multilingual backgrounds and shared stories of traveling abroad, attempts to lose their accents and transliterations across cultures.

Medill senior Becca Weinstein, an Ask Big Questions co-chair, recounted her experience studying abroad for six months in the south of France, where she said she could have survived solely with English.

“English comes close to the idea of a universal language,” Weinstein said. “Other people are learning it out of necessity because it’s the common denominator.”

Although Weinstein experienced English’s ubiquity in Europe, Felten, a Spanish professor, said since four-fifths of the world does not speak English, people who learn a second language have the potential to discover more about others and about themselves.

“To remain monolingual stunts your education and limits the world you live in,” Felten said.

In the United States, bilinguilism is more stratified among different socioeconomic classes than in other countries, said Marian, the department chair of communication sciences and disorders. Upper-class children have greater opportunities to learn second languages in school and lower-class children are more often members of immigrant bilingual families, Marian said. Middle-class children, however, lack this exposure.

“I don’t see that gap changing very much,” Marian said. “There’s this strong sentiment: one nation, one language.”

Beyond cultural knowledge, she said multilingualism is associated with different brain functions and shows benefits into old age; bilinguals experience later-onset Alzheimer’s than do monolinguals. According to Marian, children who speak another language also have beneficial strengthened inhibitor controls.

“Bilinguals overall are better at inhibiting irrelevant information, which relates to everyday life,” Marian said.

Weinberg sophomore Ann Lee, an ISA member who speaks five languages with varying degrees of fluency, said she enjoyed learning about different brain functions from Marian.

“As a history major I don’t know much about how the brain functions,” Lee said. “It was intellectually stimulating to learn about the cognitive side of language.”

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Editor’s note: This article incorrectly stated that the Ask Big Questions program is associated with Hillel. The group is not affiliated with Hillel, and this article has since been updated to reflect the correction. The Daily regrets the error.