The Power of Language by Viorica Marian
By Federico Pomarici and Kara Mac Donald
As language teachers, this book will likely interest you as it addresses the multi-faceted nature of language, its use, and its acquisition. The first part of the book is dedicated to how language influences individuals, and the second how language is used, created, and studied within society.
Part One: Self
Mind Boggling is the title of Chapter 1. This is certainly the appropriate opening to introduce the reader to the wonders of the multi-language brain. Here, we are presented with the transformative effect that learning a new language has on individuals. To show that, Marian describes the vast -yet relatively new- research that studies subjects’ eye movements. Results have shown that multilingualism allows for superior executive functions, focus, and the ability to switch among different cultural frameworks. Many more concrete and psychological domains are explored, and, thanks to the convincing arguments brought by the author, even the most skeptical reader will be enthused to immediately start learning another language. Language provides people with multiple ways of knowing, which allows them to “process the environment around [them] without the constraints imposed by the limits of a single language.”
Chapter 2 expands on the topic of eye tracking work done in recent years. Studying involuntary eye movement allows researchers to study the cognitive processes that are established in the bilingual brain. Those who are accustomed to the notion that multiple languages stored in the brain are switched on and off depending on their usage, will be amazed to learn that languages are, instead, constantly co-activated, even when one is not in use. Within this context, Marian describes the concept of parallel activation as the multilingual brain’s ability to remain accessible to multiple languages at any time. Simple, yet practical drawings and illustrations found in this chapter will further support those concepts. This leads the author to depict the brain as a parallel-processing super organism, in that parallel activation doesn’t simply impact the language domain but virtually all cognitive systems and functions.
The concept of co-activation explored in the previous chapter allows Marian to explain the relationship between creativity and multilingualism. Chapter 3 looks at creativity from a particular standpoint: as the ability to see relationships among items. Being able to identify connections among items is understood as one of the faculties that increases the ability to sense, to solve problems, and to develop ideas. At this point in the book, the reader will not be surprised that multilanguage brains are able to find connections among items that single-language brains cannot. The second part of the chapter describes how languages influence -among others- emotions, the sense of distance, direction, time, and, no less, pain. In other words, multilingual brains perceive and filter reality differently and more richly according to the language that has been activated.
Marian interrupts the readers’ assertive walk inside the multilingual brain when they are informed that there is no specific area where we would be able to locate where languages are processed. While debunking the myth that the brain is modular (Fodor), we learn that languages are distributed through an interconnected neural network and that the brain has the ability to self-organize itself. Also, knowing multiple languages increases the amount of gray and white matter in the brain. While Marian carefully steers away from stating that multilingualism causes changes that impact the way genes work (epigenetics), she does want her readers to know that multilingualism affects the speaker’s physical reality, alters the brain’s “structure and function”, and “changes the chemistry at the cellular level”.
Marian’s multi language readers will be delighted to discover the cognitive advantage they have over single language speakers. Chapter 5 reveals that knowing more than one language positively impacts the brain’s health. In particular, the multilingual brain develops a “cognitive reserve” that appears to delay anatomical deterioration of the brain itself, causing the postponement of dementia onset. From the old to the young, the chapter continues with the numerous research done on babies learning language and growing up in a multilingual environment. Results have shown that bilinguals have stronger abilities to categorize items, are better equipped at switching among different tasks, and are able to identify relevant against irrelevant information. In the third part of the chapter, the author revisits the concept of executive function of the multilingual brain. Counterintuitively, research shows the multilingual brain that is trying to manage co-activated languages is very efficient and uses less effort than monolinguals’.
The first part of the book ends with Chapter 6, where the author draws a connection between language and psychological processes and reactions. Marian describes how multi-language speakers react to different situations and how a “pattern of decreased emotions” is observed when a person receives a message in a second language. The author also shows how memory is impacted and influenced by a multilingual brain and how real-world decisions are dependent on the language in which a certain event has occurred. This leads the author to describe how the “foreign language effect” on decision making processes reflects how using a second language “leads to more logical and rational decisions than using a native language in moral judgments, financial allocations, and choices about health and medical care”.
Part Two: Society
After having explored the role of language regarding the self in Part One of the book, Chapter 7 pivots to examine the role language plays in society in Part Two of the book. Marian provides numerous examples of how language choice by public figures and government is used to persuade, manipulate and/or manufacture a particular perception. In doing so, a reality is crafted for a desired outcome. The author raises the topic of Newspeak from Orwell’s book 1984, to control the population’s thoughts, highlighting that if there is the absence of particular notions and ideas due to the control of the public’s access to particular information, then those not addressed cease to exist. Some examples of language crafted for specific outcomes and/or populations are discussed ranging from political rhetoric, advertising targeting select populations, national language policy and religious texts, among others.
Chapter 8 opens with a reflection on how different languages refer to animate and inanimate objects, where some use animate pronouns for inanimate nouns, and some languages have more than two genders (i.e., masculine and feminine) for all nouns and include a third, neuter. Marian raises the question of how the way we refer to such things influences the way we perceive and interact with objects. She presents a discussion of studies that have identified that grammatical gender impacts how individuals think and talk about objects, accompanied by examples in different languages. The second part of the chapter shifts to biases and perceptions imposed on immigrants and/or multilingual individuals, as well as the struggles of these individuals navigating their realities and identities and the impact of the majority culture on the personal negotiation of the self.
Marian presents the results of several studies, including her own, that explored individuals’ ability to predict the meaning of word sets based on the sound, documenting that the connection between form and meaning is not completely arbitrary. To a large degree studies suggest that it is not entirely random. Therefore, the form of a word can influence its meaning, and a meaning can influence the word’s form, beyond onomatopoeia. This occurs at all times in sign language gestures and signs as well as in logographic languages (i.e., Chinese characters). The relationship between sound and form/meaning is also documented by the bouba-kiki effect, where a particular shape (i.e., rounded edges or pointed edges) are systematically associated with particular words based on their sound (i.e., smooth sound or jerking sounds). The chapter then shifts to discuss how a poet’s perception of a word’s sound and meaning influences its use, and the depth and breadth of language knowledge a translator needs to correctly convey the meaning and rhythmic feel of a poem. It closes with an examination of factors impacting the acquisition of a new language.
The chapter examines the variety of languages (i.e., codes) we’ve had throughout history (i.e., the languages on the Rosetta Stone, the Enigma Code, computer codes) and some of the languages that exist to facilitate communication and others rescript information access). Tracing when the first spoken language occurred is not possible as there is no record, but examining the development of primates and early humans’ vocal anatomy can provide insight. Identifying the first written language is also challenging, depending on how a script is understood (i.e., drawings, pictographs and/or scripts). Each language varies in its number of vowels and consonants, as humans have the potential to produce a limitless number of sounds. The chapter shifts to an exploration of the relationship between natural language and artificial language, mainly focusing on the insight computer programming provides to our understanding of language acquisition and the mechanisms that facilitate it. These computer languages also offer insight into how we code information as language in our minds.
Marian presents the questions of what comes first, the thought or the language, and where the line begins and ends. Advancements in science enable us to separate ideas and knowledge from language through mathematics. And this line of investigation presents an inquiry of where language and thought originate from, as it is not unique to humans. Many species have complex languages. Even mushrooms have a language to communicate through electrical impulses. Many of the elements of former science fiction are now a reality, permitting the analysis and altering neural activity (i.e., microchips that can transmit neuro activity to a computer). Although much of these advancements can be used for good, they can also be used in harmful ways. The remainder of the chapter provides research, the impact of multilingualism and genetic advances.
In Conclusion – or Happy Trails
Marian explores the predisposition for language learning as one form of multiple intelligences. Social policies can also promote multilingualism. Yet learning a language makes it easier for individuals to learn another language. The notion of the critical period is discussed, but learning an additional language at any age has benefits whether it be for travel, work, etc. The topic of which languages are easier to learn is addressed through the U.S. Department of State’s framework categorizing languages from the distance from the English language (i.e., Category I: Spanish, Category II: German, Category III: Russian, Category IV: Arabic), and the estimated classroom hours to acquire basic proficiency. This is followed by suggestions and approaches for learning an additional language.
The book is very enjoyable to read. Being over 200 pages and addressing many aspects of language, one may think that it may be dense, slow read, but the language of the register is accessible, and the numerous personal examples offered by the author give the book a very friendly tone and make the content easily understood. Although the book’s focus is not ELT, its discussions provide valuable information for ELT educators on a personal and professional level.