Those of us who were born into the other, monoglot third, and who have struggled to learn foreign languages to any degree of competence later in life, may well be jealous. It is, of course, possible to learn a language almost as well as a native speaker – Joseph Conrad, for instance, took up English in his 20s, and went on to become one of the greatest prose stylists ever to have written in it. But it is also an enormous challenge: learning, understanding and replicating the grammar, phonological properties and everyday pragmatics of languages to fluency as an adult is no mean feat. Even Conrad, rather comfortingly, never lost what was by all accounts a nearly impenetrable Polish accent. For my own part, I have recently been trying to brush up the Japanese I spent three months learning and 12 years forgetting. After several months of daily sessions, my app informs me that I now know nearly all the ideograms that would be familiar to a Japanese six-year-old. Nearly. To be born into a language is to be a fish in water; to learn one is like wading through treacle.
Not for nothing, then, is bilingualism sometimes talked about as something akin to a superpower. Whether it actually is, though, is another question. Indeed, as The Bilingual Brain makes clear, it is a whole slew of questions. In the first place, given that it is the norm in much of the world’s population, “Is there anything special about being bilingual?” If there is, and given the vast amount of information implicated in “knowing” a language, how do two languages coexist in the same brain? Does such coexistence confer, beyond communicative flexibility, tangible cognitive benefits, or might it, in fact, do the opposite, and bring cognitive disadvantages? In either case, how exactly might it affect decision-making, the attentional system or even the development of neurodegenerative diseases?
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