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Aboriginal language knowledge and youth suicide

25 Jun

Hallett, D., Chandler, M. J., & Lalonde, C. E. (2007). Aboriginal language knowledge and youth suicide. Cognitive Development, 22(3), 392–399.

This blog post takes its impetus from Canadian bilingualism, as discussed in the cover story of this weekend’s edition of the Globe and Mail, ‘Is Bilingualism Still Relevant in Canada?’. The post progresses to recent research by Hallett, Chandler and Lalonde, which examined the relationship between youth suicide rates and bilingualism in Aboriginal communities in Canada (the connection between the Globe’s article and Hallett et al.’s research will become clear as you continue to read).

According to the Globe and Mail’s cover story, many Canadians currently question whether the Official Languages Act, which established both French and English as official languages in 1969, should be reinterpreted to embrace not only French and English, but also many of the other immigrant languages in Canada. Indeed, with “more than five million Canadians speaking a mother tongue other than English or French as of 2006” (p. A10), and a total population of just under 33 million, the call for increased support in the instruction of immigrant languages is potentially highly valid in multilingual Canada. Furthermore, as has been discussed in some of my previous blogs, if bilingualism as such, has cognitive advantages, there is no need for the language combination of bilinguals in Canada to be restricted to French and English, unless the advantages of learning additional languages go beyond cognitive benefits.

Indeed, top reasons why readers of the Globe and Mail want to be bilingual are that they 1. value Canada’s history and heritage (identity reasons); 2. believe it’s intellectually enriching (cognitive reasons); 3. want to broaden their employment horizons (financial reasons); and 4. want to be global citizens (potentially both identity and financial reasons). Certainly, only the first reason (and perhaps the third if limiting oneself to Canadian borders) would constrain itself to a French-English combination. Therefore, to answer the Globe’s title question, yes, bilingualism is still relevant in Canada, just not solely in the form of French-English bilingualism, as Canadians have generally interpreted bilingualism until now.

However, and this is why I criticise the quality of the Globe’s cover story, the learning of Aboriginal languages is consistently avoided as a viable alternative in constructing Canada’s reinterpretation of bilingualism. Not once is even one of the over 60 recognised Aboriginal languages of Canada mentioned in the two page spread. This, in my view, is all the more disappointing if the outstanding research by Hallett et al. is brought into the discussion.

Very briefly, Hallett et al.’s study showed that youth suicide rates in Aboriginal communities “effectively dropped to zero in those few communities in which at least half the band members reported a conversational knowledge of their own ‘Native’ language” (p.  392). Hallett et al.’s writing is so poignant that it is difficult to summarise for the purpose of this blog, especially considering the tragic nature of the exceedingly high suicide rates in aboriginal youth populations in Canada (compare over 95 suicides per 100000 in some of the Aboriginal communities with low rates of Aboriginal language acquisition which Hallett et al. looked at versus the national youth suicide average amongst 15-19 year olds of 11.5 per 100000 in 1996). As Hallett et al. discuss, according to the 2001 Canadian Census, overall, only 15% of the country’s Aboriginal children learn an indigenous mother tongue […]. Given such odds, and without special diligence, no more than two or three of Canada’s still existing indigenous languages are expected to survive beyond one or two more generations” (p. 394). In comparison to immigrant communities, the “perceived threats of indigenous language loss are often seen as even more real and more pressing. For such [Aboriginal] parents there is no ‘homeland’ where whole nation states continue to converse in their language of origin, and so no potential source of ‘new speakers’” (p. 393).

For Canadian Aboriginal communities, when their languages die, so too, one could interpret, do their cultures. Given Hallett et al.’s research, at the very least the instruction of Aboriginal languages should be discussed wholeheartedly in Canadian media, e.g. in the Globe and Mail, and increased support for the instruction of Aboriginal languages should commence as a matter of urgency. This, I believe, makes bilingualism highly relevant in Canada.

Esther de Leeuw

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Bilingualism as a protection against the onset of symptoms of dementia

31 May

Bialystok, E., Craik, F. I. M., & Freedman, M. (2007). Bilingualism as a protection against the onset of symptoms of dementia. Neuropsychologia, 45(2), 459–464.

This entry discusses research in bilingualism which has had a lot of media presence.

Very briefly, Bialystok, Craik and Freedman examined whether bilingualism delays the onset of the symptoms of dementia. Amazingly, their findings suggest that it is the case that bilingualism protects against the onset of the symptoms of dementia; however, as will be discussed, their results must not be generalized too much.

Initially, let’s look at how Bialystok and her colleagues designed their methodology. The researchers looked at 184 patient reports from the Memory Clinic at Baycrest in Toronto, Canada. The reports documented, amongst a lot of other factors, (1) the patients’ language backgrounds (e.g. whether they were bilingual or not) and (2) the age of onset of cognitive impairment (this age was determined in an interview during which a neurologist asked the patients and their caregivers at which age the symptoms were first noticed). Bialystok et al. then compared this age of onset of the symptoms of dementia in the monolinguals (49% of their population) with that of the bilinguals (51% of their population). Indeed, they found that there was a significant difference between the age of onset of the symptoms of dementia in the monolinguals and the bilinguals. Specifically, the bilinguals showed symptoms of dementia 4.1 years later than the monolinguals. All other factors, e.g. level of education, were considered to be equal, so it could be claimed that the “groups do not differ apart from their language abilities” (p. 462).

However, some interpretations of their results incorrectly suggest that learning a second language prevents dementia. This interpretation of their results is misleading for three reasons. Firstly, the bilinguals Bialystok et al. examined were people who “spent the majority of their lives, at least from early adulthood, regularly using at least 2 languages” (p. 460). It would therefore be incorrect to infer from their study that, for example,  attending an evening course to learn a foreign language in late adulthood could delay the onset of the symptoms of dementia (this might be the case, but their study didn’t examine such individuals, who, I emphasize here, could nevertheless arguably be considered to be bilinguals). Secondly, it would be incorrect to infer from their study that bilingualism prevents dementia. The bilinguals were just as likely to be diagnosed with dementia, it was simply the case that the diagnosis occurred on average later in the bilinguals than in the monolinguals, i.e. the onset of the symptoms of dementia was delayed in the bilinguals. Finally, the researchers suggest that (a specific type of) bilingualism is a protection against the onset of the symptoms of dementia. It may very well be that the bilinguals in their study actually acquired dementia at, on average, the same age as the monolinguals; crucially, it can only be claimed from their study that in the bilinguals the symptoms surfaced later than in the monolinguals (or, even more critically, that these symptoms were noticed later in the bilinguals than in the monolinguals).

However, if it is accepted that their findings indicate that (a certain type of) bilingualism delays the onset of the symptoms of dementia (and it seems that this would be a valid conclusion), there are practical implications. For example, it appears that raising a child in a bilingual environment has benefits in old age in addition to those potentially evidenced earlier on. Moreover, maintaining bilingualism instead of monolingual assimilation could postpone the onset of the symptoms of dementia in rather large immigrant populations.

Overall, Bialystok et al.’s results are truly amazing, indicating that the effects of bilingualism extend far beyond the immediate benefits of knowing more than one language.

Esther de Leeuw

Bimodal bilingualism

30 Apr

Emmorey, K., Borinstein, H. B., Thompson, R., & Gollan, T. H. (2008). Bimodal Bilingualism. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 11(01), 43–61.

Often, when we think of bilinguals, we think of people who speak two or more languages. In fact, we might even claim that to be bilingual, one must speak at least two languages fluently.

Emmorey, Borinstein, Thompson and Gollan looked at a different type of bilingual, who they call “bimodal”. Bimodal bilinguals are “exceptional because distinct modalities allow for simultaneous production of two languages” (p.43). In practical terms, bimodal bilinguals are born to parents who are hearing impaired, or deaf. The parents’ hearing children learn to sign in order to communicate with their parents, while acquiring the spoken language of their environment, like other hearing children. What makes these children special is that they can produce both of their languages at the same time because it is physically possible to simultaneouslysign with your hands and produce spoken utterances with your mouth.  In contrast, unimodal bilinguals (e.g. someone who is fluent in both English and Spanish) cannot physically articulate two words or phrases simultaneously (e.g. it is impossible to say dog whilst saying perro).

Emmorey et al. investigated American English (AE) – American Sign Language (ASL) bimodal bilinguals to see whether they did indeed say AE words and produce ASL signs at the same time (they call the occurrence of such simultaneous words and signs “code-blending”). After all, just because it is physically possible to code-blend, doesn’t mean that bimodal bilinguals will actually do so.

Their study is interesting to research in bilingualism for many reasons. In particular, if the bimodal bilinguals code-blend frequently, Emmorey et al.’s claim is that this shows that selecting both languages (called “lexical selection”) is less costly than inhibiting one of the languages (called “lexical inhibition”). Lexical inhibition would entail the production of only one “term”, e.g. either saying the word dog, or signing its equivalent sign. Lexical selection would entail the production of both of the “terms” at the same time. The assumption is that the bimodal bilinguals will do what is less costly, or easier on the brain. If selection is less costly, the bimodal bilinguals will code-blend a lot; however, if inhibition is less costly, they won’t code-blend very much at all.

To conduct their study, eleven AE – ASL bimodal bilinguals were filmed. These participants were asked to converse with one another about chosen topics and the researchers coded the short films to see how frequent code-blending was in relation to their total conversation.

Their findings showed that code-blending was indeed frequent amongst the bimodal bilinguals: of the 910 utterances, 325 (35.7%) contained a code-blend and some of their data showed blending 98.0% of the time (p. 48). Interestingly, most of the code-blends were verbs, rather than nouns or adjectives. According to Emmorey et al., this high amount of code-blending indicates that dual selection of languages is less costly than the inhibition of one of the languages. Moreover, they tentatively suggest that the only reason why hearing unimodal bilinguals do not produce both of their languages simultaneously is because it is physically impossible to produce two spoken languages at the same time. Alternatively, if it were physically possible to say dog and perro at the same time, the Spanish-English bilingual in the above example would indeed do so.

Without a doubt, their study raises many questions regarding how bilinguals control the production of their languages. More basically, Emmorey et al.’s research exemplifies the many forms bilingualism can take.

Esther de Leeuw