The Trilingual Advantage?

I just love randomly getting in touch with famous people (OK, semi-famous…and only in the nerd-o-sphere) and having them respond. Yesterday, there was a Q and A in the New York Times with a certain Professor Ellen Bialystok, who does research on the brain and how it reacts to bilingualism. In short, she was saying that research has shown that the use of two languages in everyday life has a bevy of advantages in young and old, including prolonged functionality at the onset of Alzheimer’s.

Of course, the natch question for an Iranian-Italian family with a young child living in the US of A is whether exposure to three languages is a good thing…or whether the said young child will just grow up with a jumble of sounds in her head. So what’s a girl to do? Write the expert and ask, mais oui!

After very little sleuthing on the net, I found Prof. Bialystok’s email address, and I wrote her the following message:

 Dear Prof. Bialystok,

I’m sure you will be getting a flood of emails after the recent Q and A featured in the NY Times. Hopefully mine won’t get lost in the crowd!

I’m curious as to whether you have encountered any trilingual cases in your research. I’ll explain: I’m a first generation Iranian who married an Italian native. We currently live in the U.S. and are obviously surrounded by all-things English, so our daughter (1.5 years old) is exposed to all three languages. My parents look after her during the week and speak to her in Farsi (although my mother resists because she things P will get confused) and my husband and I speak to her in Italian. We figure that she gets enough English through exposure in things like kids’ classes and such.

What is amazing to me is that Penelope is picking up all three languages simultaneously. When she’s hungry, she says, “Apple! Acqua! Naan!” She’s pretty much covering all her bases! She seems to pick up the easiest word for things in every language, with the exception of “farfalla” (butterfly), which she just likes saying over and over again.

Anyway, I don’t mean this to be a gushing review of her language skills, but I’m just wondering if you’ve encountered the same type of thing elsewhere. And mostly I’m wondering if we should continue down this road and expose her to all three languages.

Thanks for reading!

To my utter shock, she responded a day later. Here’s what she wrote:

Your description of P’s language is exactly right for a child growing up in a rich linguistic environment. You must continue to provide her this incredible opportunity and savour her journey through these wonderful languages. Tell your mother to stop worrying and speak to her in Farsi. Some day P will thank her.

With best regards,
Ellen Bialystok

How cool is that? It’s been my experience that college professors are very nice about responding to emails from random people (my other random email led to a week-long, all-expenses trip to Italy as part of an earthquake reconnaissance team) – so here’s a bit of (unsolicited) advice. Write people. Ask them things. They’re just people, and they might find what you’re saying actually interesting. And maybe even respond.

3 thoughts on “The Trilingual Advantage?

  1. This is very, very interesting for me since I think about language skill and my job (localization) everyday. As I am Japanese has looong life expectancy, my concern is to have Alzheimer’s, but my heart is still healthy as young people and live year after year. Horrible…isn’t it?
    I really home my language skill helps in the future 🙂

    • Hey, you should not worry about your probably Alzheimer´s disease. Did you know? That being bilingual delays onset the disease by 5 years, if you dont belive me, check it out. Bless u

  2. Hey, that is so awesome!! Your daughter will be someone really smart and special. I hope, she respects and keeps as legacy the 3 languages. I was raised with English and Spanish, now I am learning French at age 14.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s