Although throughout history many cultures have spread the myth that bilingualism has negative psychological effectsScientific research in recent decades clearly shows that mastering several languages has positive consequences.
In this article we will describe the relationship of multilingualism with intelligence, personality and creativity. As we will see, speaking more than one language produces changes at the mental level primarily through improved cognitive flexibility and abstract reasoning.
- Related article: “The 8 Higher Psychological Processes”
Define bilingualism and multilingualism
A person is said to be multilingual when they can communicate naturally in several languages, especially if they acquired the skills at an early age. When someone speaks two languages, we are talking about bilingualism, Those who know three languages are trilingual, etc.
There is debate about the degree of proficiency required to be able to consider a person to be multilingual. Many experts limit the definition to the ability to speak a second language fairly fluently, while others consider that a good knowledge of at least two languages is necessary.
They have been around for a long time prejudices about the psychological effects of bilingualism in traditionally monolingual cultures; bilingual people were credited with inferior intelligence, less fluency in languages, and moral and character alterations.
The first research on multilingualism confirmed this type of perspective, although they had serious methodological problems which invalidated their results. Subsequent studies not only refuted these hypotheses, but showed that bilingualism can have beneficial effects on cognition.
However, it should be remembered that many of these advantages are more a consequence of multiculturalism, a natural result of learning multiple languages. Knowing more than one language makes it easier to become familiar with different perspectives and improves abstract thinking, such as multilingualism it requires complex conceptual reasoning.
Types of bilingualism
Cummins made a proposal known as the “threshold assumption”. According to this author, bilingualism can have positive or negative effects depending on the degree of language proficiency and various psychosocial variables, such as the prestige of the two languages.
In this way, Cummins raised that bilingual people who do not meet a minimum threshold in both languages they can suffer negative effects; in these cases, we would speak of subtractive bilingualism. Subsequent research suggested that bilingual people with poor language proficiency may have a slight disadvantage in arithmetic.
On the other hand, when the upper threshold of language proficiency is exceeded, it occurs additive bilingualism, which positively influences cognition, As we will see below. The greater the mastery of languages, these effects are all the more intense.
Multilingualism, cognition and intelligence
Research reveals that the cognitive structure of bilingual people is different of that of monolinguals. More precisely, the IQ is explained by a greater number of factors; this means that cognitive skills become more diverse in those who learn more than one language during their development.
Additionally, multilingualism has been associated with greater cognitive flexibility. This means that bilingual people tend to have more ability to find alternative solutions to problems and choose the best option among those available.
On the other hand, as we have already mentioned, multilingualism favors the development of abstract reasoning and the manipulation of concepts. This has been attributed to a greater awareness that words do not denote absolute realities but they have an important arbitrary component.
As a result, multilinguals would have a greater ability to focus on structures rather than on the elements that make them up, as well as to reorganize themselves. It includes a verbal dimension but also involves perception.
Influence on personality
Many multilingual people report that their personality is changing according to the language they use; these changes have been confirmed by some studies. However, they are generally attributed to the adoption of a different contextual framework depending on the culture with which each language is associated, which would be independent of the language used.
However linguistic relativity hypotheses they claim that language influences the way we think and feel. Thus, learning more than one language could facilitate the development of different facets of the personality. It is also believed that speaking in the second language means that many bilinguals abandon social conventions.
On the other hand, the social context can influence personality and psychological well-being through the attitude towards bilingualism. For example, children from Latin America may be looked down upon in the United States for speaking a different language; such situations also interfere with normal language learning.
Relationship with creativity
The beneficial effects of bilingualism on creativity they are associated with cognitive flexibility. The ability to take different perspectives and rearrange mental content produces clear improvements in creativity, especially in people who are fluent in more than one language.
JP Guilford described two types of reasoning: converge and diverge. While convergent thinking is sequential (going “in a straight line”), divergent reasoning more spontaneously explores multiple alternatives and is based on the relationships between the whole and the elements that compose it.
The concept of divergent reasoning is very close to that of creativity. Measures of cognitive fluency, flexibility, and originality, which Guilford defined as the basic skills of divergent reasoning and the creative process, were found to be consistently higher on average among multilingual people than among monolinguals.