My Barriers to Bilingualism
By RAMSAY BADEN | September 24, 2017
The world has only now begun to champion multilingualism. Throughout early nineteenth century to about the mid-1960s, “there was a widespread belief that bilingualism has a detrimental effect on a human being’s intellectual and spiritual growth.”
Things have changed dramatically since. Across all disciplines the ability to speak more than one language fluently has been touted as a way to enhance the functionality of the brain, increase productivity, and problem-solve in superior ways. Those who are multilingual seem to be better at puzzles and environmental observation. They also appear to be more resistant to dementia and Alzheimer’s. The human brain is perfectly capable of utilizing more than one language, considering that more than half of the world population can speak at least two languages and that there are 6,909 living languages in existence today.
None of this changes the fact that I am terrified about taking Chinese this semester.
This is partially due to the way that I have responded to my upbringing. I spent a good portion of my life in Taiwan, where I confronted the reality that I could not live there on my own without a solid grasp of the language. Because of my biracial background, I felt a particularly strong need to understand each of my parents’ culture. Without knowing Chinese, I am unable to communicate with my extended family. Ultimately, I see failure to learn this second language as a failure to better understand my family and, by extension, myself. Because of this, failing to adequately learn Chinese has become one of my greatest fears.
This self-induced pressure ended up being detrimental to my Chinese education. I arrived in Taiwan at about ten years old, which is right around the age when the brain’s language acquisition centers stop growing. I struggled in my Chinese classes throughout my time in Taiwan, and I found myself falling further and further behind my classmates. I started to rely heavily upon Google Translate, and my “learning” of Chinese characters became an exercise in how well I could copy pictures from the board. When I attempted to pass the AP test for Chinese during my senior year of high school I received a laughably low score.
I have come to rely on my own fallback phrase whenever people ask me to speak in Chinese to them: “我可以講一點點，可是我不太好，所以我不要講太多。” This means: I can speak a little bit, but I’m not that good, so I do not want to say too much.
I am certainly not alone in my struggle to learn an additional language. When looking for an explanation as to why exactly adults have a harder time learning additional languages, researchers find that it may result from a tendency to learn by drilling in a classroom rather than going out and practicing the language in real situations. A parallel study published by MIT suggests that adults try too hard to learn the language rather than allow their passive, procedural memory to do the work for them. Another study at Hebrew University highlighted pattern recognition as the key to language acquisition
Despite the difficulties that people can have with learning another language, multilingualism is spreading rapidly. In 1980, only about 11 percent of Americans spoke more than one language. Today, more than 60.6 million Americans speak a language other than English at home. It is more apparent than ever that speaking another language will be necessary to be a member of the global community.
In some ways, my departure from Taiwan used to make me feel like I had abandoned my mission. I have not taken a Chinese class since I left. Accordingly, it makes sense that I’m filled with trepidation as I return to a subject that has challenged me my entire life. But I have come to realize that I am my biggest obstacle. I have not mastered Chinese because I do not want to make mistakes, and the truth of the matter is that I will have to mess up over and over again if I really want to learn the language. And, 我真的要學中文 。(I really want to learn Chinese!)