The Benefits and Challenges of Bilingualism

by indonotes

Reasearch into Bilingualism has highlighted the cognitive benefits and social consequences of speaking a second language.

There was an interesting piece in a recent edition of New Scientist summarising research about some consequences of bilingualism.[1] Research has pointed to cognitive and even health benefits to those who speak another language. Those who spoke more than one language scored higher on verbal and non-verbal reasoning tests, even after controlling for factors such as education and class. They were also found to have a more developed ‘executive system’, allowing them to more effectively switch between tasks and block out irrelevant information. Other studies showed them to be better able to see other people’s perspectives and bilingual people were even found to be less vulnerable to the onset of dementia.

As a native English speaker learning Indonesian and with an interest in Indonesia, these are interesting findings. One might wonder, as New Scientist does, what cognitive benefits native English speakers are missing out on. New Scientist cites an EU study from 2005 which found that Britain and Ireland had the lowest rates of bilingualism in Europe, with only around 1 in 3 people being able to converse in more than one language. By learning Indonesian at least I can take satisfaction in doing my bit to bump up Britain’s numbers!

Another cluster of studies covered in the New Scientist piece pointed to behavioural and social changes when bilingual people were asked questions, shown adverts or were presented with stories in different languages. The article linked these studies to ‘the role of language as a kind of scaffold that supports and structures our memories’. To me these findings are fascinating in the context of Indonesia, given the wide extent of bilingualism combining a ‘local ethnic’ language such as Javanese with Indonesian. In addition to this amongst the educated English is often spoken to some degree and amongst the pious some level of proficiency in Arabic is not uncommon.

From my own experiences in Java I was struck by the differing emotional and social resonances of social settings in which Indonesian was spoken and those where Javanese was used. My inability to speak Javanese is a road block here, but the sense I had from my Javanese friends was of the flatness of Indonesian (even when made more expressive with slang or borrowings from Javanese), the limitations in its ability to express intimacy and civility. Moreover, certain egalitarian elements of Indonesian posed both problems and opportunities – I remember the mother of a friend decrying Indonesian as ‘too democratic’ in comparison to Javanese with its elaborate demarcation of social status amongst interlocutors.

In the 1960s Benedict Anderson sketched out an argument with parallels to some of the above points in his article ‘The Languages of Indonesian Politics’. Looking at the first generation of Indonesian nationalists, he saw their learning of Dutch as implying a change in ‘modalities of consciousness’, opening them up to ‘fundamentally different’ structures of thought. This led to a ‘profound mental and spiritual displacement’ and a potentially ‘destructive and/or creative… two mindedness’. I think there is some mileage in his argument that ‘there was a general tendency for the weight of individual’s personality to be laid on either the Dutch or the regional-traditional “leg.”’ However, I think this loses some sense of process of creative synthesis that took place. Ki Hadjar Dewantara is an interesting case in point. He was learned in Dutch language scholarship (and much of his correspondence is in Dutch), yet he was a key figure in the Taman Siswa school movement which paid great attention to regional ethnic cultures, as well as having significant influence on the cultural and educational direction of the new Indonesian state.

Since the 1960s when ‘The Languages of Indonesian Politics’ was published, work on the interaction of language, culture, society and politics has served to elaborate on and modify some of Anderson’s arguments. The picture emerging seems to me in some ways messier, more fluid, more multidirectional (to put it inelegantly) than Anderson portrayed. For example work by Joseph Errington has, amongst much else, looked at the interaction between ‘macro’ and ‘micro’ linguistic change, highlighted syncretic patterns of language use (such as Bahasa gadho-gadho, or ‘language salad’ involving the mixing of different languages), and explored shifting usage of the Javanese krama speech style in the context of social change.[2] However, even as some of Anderson’s arguments are modified, we seem to be brought back to other thrusts in ‘The Languages of Indonesian Politics’, with its view of language as an ongoing, socially creative project.


[1] See ‘My Two Minds’ in New Scientist, 5 May 2012,.

[2] There is a bibliography of Errington’s work at http://www.yale.edu/errington/Pubs.htm.

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