From William Shakespeare to Amy Tan: Do bilinguals make better writers? (2)

IMG_7123In my last post, I started to argue that there is a link between bilingualism – the ability to speak a second language to some degree of proficiency – and linguistic creativity. That is, bilinguals like Jack Kerouac and Ernest Hemingway were better writers in English because they could speak at least one other language as well.

My argument was based purely on anecdote – essentially that, if you look at any list of the 100 greatest novels of all time, a large number of the authors represented will be proficient in another language.

However, there is more than just anecdotal evidence to support the claim. Over the last four decades, there has been a huge amount of research on the potential advantages (and disadvantages) of bilingualism on various aspects of cognition. This includes a growing amount of research on the link between bilingualism and creativity.

Before looking at the research it’s worth first defining some terms. As human beings, we have the capacity to perform various mental processes. Creativity, just one of these processes, is actually a fairly complex concept. In everyday life, being “creative” can mean anything from being good at solving maths problems to being handy with a paintbrush.

Among scientists, a commonly accepted definition is that creativity is the ability to come up with novel and useful (or appropriate) ideas. And the production of these ideas is generally assumed to involve two different mental processes. The first process, divergent thinking, involves producing a number of different ideas in response to some question or problem. The second, convergent thinking, involves searching and analysing these ideas to find the most appropriate one(s). So, if I want to complete the sentence “the man screamed like a…”, divergent thinking is coming up with noun phrases like “banshee”, “baby”, and “boy scout”. Convergent thinking, on the other hand, is settling on “chimpanzee on fire”.

When it comes to producing novel ideas, divergent thinking is key. Ernest Hemingway once wrote: “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast”. Coining such a memorable metaphor for the City of Light needed both divergent and convergent thinking but, without the former, the latter would have got Hemingway nowhere. As a result, most researchers interested in creativity tend to focus on measuring individuals’ ability to think divergently. To do so, they tend to employ one of a number of standard tests.

In these tests people might be shown random doodles (something like the inkblot test) and asked to write down as many ideas as they can for what they might represent. Or, they might be shown some visual puzzle and asked to come up with creative solutions to it. One of the most common tests, the Torrance Test, evaluates three aspects of divergent thinking based how many ideas individuals produce in a set period of time (“fluency”), how different the ideas are from each other (“flexibility”), and how different they are to ideas that other people come up with (“novelty”).

In the 1970s, in an early study of bilingualism and creativity, a researcher at the University of North Dakota looked at how elementary school students performed on the Torrance Test (Landry, 1973). The first two groups of students, from the second and sixth grades, were at an elementary school that provided a foreign language programme. The second two groups of students attended an elementary school, which didn’t provide any foreign language tuition. All students in the study had English as their first language. Although there was no significant difference found between the two groups of second-grade students, the researcher found that sixth-grade girls who had received bilingual education did perform better in measures of fluency and flexibility.

In a more recent study, a researcher at the University of Haifa compared the creative thinking abilities of bilingual Russian-Hebrew children in both Hebrew-language and dual-language Kindergartens in Israel, against those of monolingual Hebrew-speaking children (Leikin, 2012). The children, from similar socio-economic backgrounds, were tested at the start of Kindergarten and then, again, one year later. The researcher found that there was no significant difference between the divergent thinking of the three sets of students in the first round of tests. However, when the tests were repeated, the bilingual students in the dual-language programme performed significantly better (in terms of flexibility and novelty) compared to the monolingual group, suggesting that regular exposure to two languages at school did enhance creative thinking.

Doing this sort of research is always challenging and it’s almost impossible to control for all the factors – age, socioeconomic background, education level, cultural background, and so on – that might affect the creative performance of the individuals concerned. Even establishing a study group with similar levels of mono- or bilingualism is challenging enough. When it comes to speaking multiple languages, everyone is different, for example in terms of whether they speak a second language at home, when they began learning the language, how many other languages they might speak, and what those languages are. For example, researchers (including an old Professor of mine) recently found that habitual code-switchers performed better on the Torrance Test than non-habitual ones (Kharkhurin & Wei, 2015). Inevitably, whenever you measure the creativity of any random sample of people – bilingual or otherwise – you will get a wide range of scores. Although everyone is creative, some people are just naturally more creative than others.

Despite the research challenges, most researchers are now in agreement that there is a positive correlation between bilingualism and creative thinking. That is, on average, bilinguals are more likely to be more creative thinkers (and therefore more creative writers) than their monolingual counterparts.

The next question, of course, is why?

A few explanations have been offered as to why this might be the case. One theory is simply that bilinguals benefit from a wider range of experiences than monolinguals because they operate in more than one languages and, often, within more than one culture. As a result, they have access to a wider range of ideas, which they can combine together to form new and novel ones.

One of the most appealing theories was suggested by Anatoliy Kharkhurin, a psychologist from the American University of Sharjah, in his book Multilingualism & Creativity. Kharkhurin points to the fact that, within our brains, all our knowledge of concepts and things is stored in a complex, interconnected semantic network. This network is known to have two layers or levels.

At the bottom level are the concepts themselves – things like DOG and CAT and CASTLE. Within this layer, related concepts are horizontally connected. For instance, the concepts DOG and CAT might be connected since both are quadrupeds and common household pets (and, between them, they account for the majority of the videos on Youtube). As a result, thinking about cats is likely to make you think about dogs too. The concepts DOG and CASTLE, on the other hand, are unlikely to be interconnected. So, thinking about dogs won’t immediately make you think about turrets and drawbridges.

In the next level up (the lexical level) are the linguistic labels for each of these concepts – for example, the words “cat”, “dog”, and “castle”. Importantly, the levels are vertically interconnected so that the concept CAT is connected to the lexical item “cat”, DOG is connected to “dog”, and CASTLE is connected to “castle”.

There are also further horizontal connections within the lexical level so that “dog” might be connected to words like “log” and “fog” because they each share two phonemes. As a result, if someone said to you the word “dog”, because of the various links in your semantic network, you might think about cats and logs. But you would be unlikely to think about castles.

That is, unless you also spoke French. Although bilinguals will still have only one set of concepts in the bottom layer of their semantic network, they will have two sets of linguistic labels in the next level up. So a French-English bilingual will have both “château” and “castle” connected to the concept CASTLE, and both “cat” and “chat” connected to the concept CAT. Therefore, if you said the word “dog” to a French-English bilingual it might make them think of cats, which might make them think of the word “chat”, which might make them think of the (phonetically related) word “château”, and therefore the concept CASTLE – a train of thought which just isn’t open to a monolingual speaker of English.

This process of language-mediated concept activation is one of the key processes, Kharkhurin proposes, behind the positive correlation between bilingualism and creativity. And, by way of a real life example of this process in action, here’s a passage Jack Kerouac wrote in his diary in February 1950:

“In my sleep I referred to myself, in French, not as “writer” but as arrangeur – he who arranges matters; at the same time, I associated this fraction with eating supper (manger). I woke up to remember this.”

So there you have it. On average, bilinguals are found to be more creative (linguistically and otherwise) than monolinguals, and there are some convincing theories for why this might be the case.

Of course, there’s far more to good writing than divergent thinking. But it seems fair to say that, if you aspire to be a successful novelist and you already speak a second language, then you’re off to a good start.



Kharkhurin, A. V., & Wei, L. (2015). The role of code-switching in bilingual creativity. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 18(2), 153-169.
Landry, R. G. (1973). The Relationship of Second Language and Verbal Creativity. The Modern Language Journal, 57(3), 110-113.
Leikin, M. (2012). The effect of bilingualism on creativity: Developmental and educational perspectives. International Journal of Bilingualism, 17(4), 431-447.


Tape Recordings of Cody: Why Jack Kerouac Was a Sociolinguist

IMG_5952As biographer Joyce Johnson points out, Jack Kerouac was many things.

As well as being the beatnik author of On The Road, Kerouac was also a conservative, Catholic Republican. He was a college football star as much as he was a Thomas Wolfe reading poet. He was a Joual speaking French-Canadian who became the all-American novelist, and he was a middle class, white kid from Lowell, Massachusetts who identified strongly with African American culture and jazz music. And, alongside his friend Allen Ginsberg, Kerouac was certainly one of the great literary innovators of the twentieth century.

But I’d like to suggest another side to Jack Kerouac’s multi-faceted identity. I’m going to claim that Jack Kerouac was also a linguist – in particular, a sociolinguist.

As the label suggests, sociolinguists – like William Labov – strive to understand the relationship between language and society. Like all linguists, sociolinguists are interested in the structural features of language (at the level of syntax, morphology, phonology and prosody). And, unlike some linguists, they are also interested in the structure and organisation of these features within everyday conversations and passages of text (at the level of “discourse”). However, what sociolinguists are particularly interested in is how these aspects of language relate to the different people – and groups of people – that make up society. Through pioneering research in the department stores of New York City in the 1960s, for example, Labov showed that whether or not a person there pronounces the “r” sound in words like “fourth” and “floor” is a good indicator of socioeconomic class.

The link between language and identity – in terms of social class, nationality, ethnic background, gender, profession, and so on – remains a very active field of research to this day. In general, sociolinguists are interested in the question: how do we use language (and languages) to construct and negotiate the various aspects of our identities? For example, if I pronounce “bath” to rhyme with “maths” (rather than “Brienne of Tarth”) then I am clearly telling fellow Brits that I am not from the South of England. If I say “lexeme” (instead of “word”) I’m identifying myself as a linguist. And so on.

As you might expect of a writer, Kerouac was certainly interested in language. In the summer of 1949 he began filling one of his notebooks with “private philologies”, noting the derivations of various words and exploring what could be suggested, beyond their meanings, by the way they sounded. In his diaries, Kerouac often reflects on his French-Canadianness, musing that his real identity – his true self – was the Joual speaking boy from Lowell who never made an appearance in public. The relationship between bilingualism and identity remains a very active area of research in applied linguistics (Googling the two words “bilingualism” and “identity”, for example, returns about 500,000 search results).

And Kerouac was very much interested in people too (especially, as the famous quote goes, the “mad ones”). In 1946, when he was introduced to Neal Cassady – the car stealing, Proust-reading, “mad to live” hero of On The Road – Kerouac found, as well as a great friend, the subject for his greatest art. Kerouac even devotes one of his novels, Visions of Cody, in its entirety to a “character study” of Neal (“Cody Pomeray” in the novel).

But Kerouac doesn’t just write about Neal. What is remarkable for a work of literature – even for an experimental one like Visions of Cody – is that Kerouac also recorded his subject speaking. Just like any good sociolinguist, using a portable tape recorder, Kerouac recorded entire conversations between himself, Neal and their friends doing what they normally did – sitting around, talking, listening to jazz records, and smoking “tea”. Kerouac then transcribed the conversations directly into the novel.

And he did so in a remarkably systematic way: Italics are used to indicate stress (“It was my idea”); capitals are used to indicate even greater stress (“YOU know”). In punctuating the dialogue, Kerouac rarely uses full stops, obviously aware that human speech seldom fits into well formed sentences. Instead, he marks pauses of various lengths by hyphens, commas or ellipses (“…”). He also uses italics and parentheses to provide contextual information or paralinguistic details. It may not quite hit the industry standard that conversation analysts use when transcribing speech (and it might not be “impeccably accurate in syntax punctuation” as Ginsberg suggests in his foreword to Visions) but it’s pretty good: if not the work of a trained linguist, it’s the work of someone with a keen ear for “real” language.

Here’s a good example of Kerouac’s transcription from a section called “The Party”, where Jack and his friends are goofing around, listening to music (my highlighting in bold font):

PAT. That ‘Leave Us Leap’, Gene Krupa’s ‘Leave Us Leap’, (‘Them There Eyes’ begins on phonograph) Boy it’s got, oh man,     you got – piano passage in it that’s terrific… Everything, everything in the thing is good. Did you – did you hear that ‘Charmaine’ by Billie – Billie –
JACK. I can’t remember ‘Leave Us Leap’
PAT. ‘Leave us Leap?’ Oh man it’s sensational
JACK. Ray Eldridge on it?
PAT. – one of the best numbers I ever heard. Doesn’t tell you. Must be
JACK. Well he had quite a band, sure
PAT. (as Cody talks far un background saying: I saw…) But man that ‘Leave Us Leap’, it’s just … it’s almost like ‘I Want to Be Happy’ with Glenn Miller, you know? Sounds like there’s a tension… (as Jack sings ‘I Want To Be Happy’ in harmony with ‘Them There Eyes’) No… ten times as fast as that
JACK. That’s fast enough… that’s the tune
PAT. That’s what it said on the label but you’d never know (Jack laughs) The tension and the drive all the way through
JACK. (bemused at phonograph) Ooh… well play the Dizzy
PAT. (still reading cookbook) Huh?
JIMMY. (playing with the toy telephone) Can you tell me why the manufacturer forgot to put a hole in the part where you hear through?
PAT. So it’s so you can call your wife
JIMMY. Ah… I was –
CODY. (laughing) So you can call your wife

You might argue that the transcription doesn’t make for great literature (and you probably wouldn’t be alone in thinking that). But it does make for interesting research. By carefully analysing the dialogue line-by-line, word-by-word, a sociolinguist might start to look at what (and how) identities – such as “American”, “friend”, “jazz aficionado”, “heterosexual male” – are constructed and negotiated as the conversations progress.

For example, Pat’s use of “boy” and “man” in the first few turns of the dialogue mark him out – most broadly – as an American (rather than, say, an Englishman). In referring to Jack with these terms of address, and through the use of a generally informal register (for example, “numbers” for songs), Pat seems to be indexing friendship and familiarity with Jack and the others. Throughout the dialogue, Jack and Pat use a variety of specialist terms (such as “the drive”, “piano passage” and “Ray Eldridge”) to mark their statuses as jazz aficionados. Clearly only a cool Jazz cat like Jack would ask someone to play “the Dizzy” (Gillespie record). Finally, at the end of the passage, Pat makes a joke which – because it relies on a sexist stereotype of the verbose wife – arguably marks him out as a heterosexual male and one of the “boys”. In laughing at the joke, Cody aligns to the same group identity. For any sociolinguist, the sort of data that Kerouac painstakingly transcribed is gold dust.

As well as doing an excellent job of transcribing his conversations with Neal Cassady, Kerouac was also well aware of two key methodological concerns for any sociolinguist.

First of all, he was aware of the observer’s paradox. As formulated by Labov, the paradox states that whenever you try to observe people talking naturally, what you observe is always going to be (at least partly) affected by the subjects’ awareness that they are at that moment being observed. One way around the paradox is to record people in secret but, since that would be highly unethical, it’s a no-no for modern sociolinguists. Kerouac’s approach was more blunt, and only marginally more ethical: he got Neal so high on marijuana that he was no longer aware he was being recorded.

Secondly, Kerouac (or at least his publishers) were well aware of the issues of attributing the data to particular individuals. As with modern sociolinguistic studies, the names of the subjects were all changed to keep the people concerned anonymous: Kerouac himself becomes “Jack Duluoz”; Neal Cassady becomes “Cody Pomeray”, and so on.

So, there you have it. In terms of his deep interest in people and identity, his natural instinct for language, and his pioneering methods of data collection, I hope I’ve shown that – on top of being a great novelist – Jack Kerouac was also a pioneering sociolinguist.

And, as Allen Ginsberg wrote in the foreword to Visions of Cody, great art “lies in the sacrementalization of everyday reality, the God-worship in the present conversation”. While that’s clearly the concern of great writers like Kerouac, I hope I’ve also shown, that’s the realm of linguists too.

When do you have the right to play with someone else’s language?

IMG_4924Recently, I was in an Oslo bar visiting a friend. A Norwegian colleague of his was talking – in impressively fluent English – about the local nightlife, generously suggesting some bars we should visit while we were in town. As he mentioned one in particular, he paused for a second trying to find the word to describe it.

‘It’s quite…um…rock-y,’ he said.

He suddenly became uncharacteristically self-conscious, almost embarrassed, and laughed apologetically. His girlfriend – also Norwegian and with a similar mastery of English – joined in, mocking him for using (inventing) a word that he didn’t think existed.

‘I mean they play a lot of rock music there,’ he said.

For me, their reaction was striking. Of course, I understood exactly what he meant. He wasn’t referring to the state of the floors in the place (later I found out that they were a little bit sticky, but not uneven), nor to any film starring Sylvester Stallone. Although the Merriam-Webster dictionary doesn’t include ‘has a rock music vibe’ as a definition, the intended meaning of ‘rocky’ was entirely clear to me.

More importantly, he had only done what English speakers do all the time: That performance was a bit ‘bit-y’. That chicken was a bit ‘turkey-y’. Just last week I saw written on the side of my high-street Americano: ‘Our house espresso is always bold and intense with a chocolatey, caramel-y undertone.’

My friend’s colleague might not have applied a grammatical rule that features in Gwynne’s Grammar. But it’s still one that is a perfectly legitimate part of English. (Actually, it’s a highly productive example of derivational morphology, which I’ve blogged about before). On the spur of the moment, he had been creative with English, just like many English speakers would.

But I suspect the problem was this: as a Norwegian, speaking to an Englishman, he didn’t feel he had the right.

Creative play with words, sentences and phonemes – or language play as linguist David Crystal calls it – is ubiquitous. It might be most well known as something poets do, but language play is not something that is limited to literature and the arts. You only have to look at the tabloid headlines, watch an episode of Strictly Come Dancing, or even spend a night down the pub to find countless examples of everyday linguistic creativity. The use of metaphor and simile (‘she’s as quiet as a mouse’), hyperbole (‘that burger is enormous!’), intertextual references and rehashed clichés (‘keep calm and have a beer’), non-standard vocabulary (‘I’m going to take my automobile for a spin), invented words (‘caramel-y’), and code-switching to other languages (‘mais oui, mais oui Rodney!’) are all part of what linguist Ronald Carter calls ‘the art of common talk’.

In conversation, people might use creative language with an element of performance – to show off, hold other people’s attention, or to make people laugh. Or, they might use creative language more subconsciously, to simply get as close as possible to the meaning they want to convey. This is what my friend’s colleague was doing when he used the word ‘rock-y’. It’s just that, as a non-native English speaker, he wasn’t sure he had the right.

So, when do you have the right to play with a language? Do you have to be a native speaker?

Maybe I have a lack of respect, but I’ve always taken great pleasure in butchering other people’s languages. In my early days of learning Mandarin, I was able to make my Chinese-Canadian partner giggle with joy by calling a ‘sock’ (‘wàzi’), a ‘foot-packet’ (‘jiǎobāo’). It was an entirely invented get-around, and I knew it wasn’t correct. But I also knew it would make me sound silly and childish, as well as gently poke fun at the wonderfully endless number of such compound nouns in Chinese – and that was entirely the point.

Some experts say that playing with language like this can even be beneficial. In his book Language Play, Language Learning, linguist Guy Cook points out the important role, often overlooked by teachers, that language play can have when it comes to learning foreign languages.

On one hand, language play can provide a fun way to draw attention to specific features of a language, in exactly the same way that nursery rhymes and nonsense words (‘Hickory, dickory, dock’) do for children learning their first language. I remember vividly the first time I heard a Swiss 4 year-old at a swimming pool say the charmingly-silly phrasecaca boudin’ (‘poo-poo sausage’). Thanks to him, although I’ve still never eaten one, I’ve never forgotten what a ‘boudin’ is.

On the other hand, language play can also give to students some sense of ownership of that language – as something they can use to whatever ends they need it for.

Picasso once said, ‘the chief enemy of creativity is good sense’. So, perhaps sensible people know better than to play with other people’s language. The rest of us language learners, however, should just carry on having fun.

The ‘either…or’ politics of language

IMG_3389Cognitive science has shown us that, like it or not, we have the tendency to see the world in terms of opposites. Things are either hot or cold, black or white. People are either young or old, fat or thin. In terms of their identity, they are either one of ‘us’ or one of ‘them’.

It’s not surprising, then, that so much of political debate is framed in terms of ‘either… or’. The Government should be clamping down on benefit fraud. Or it should be curbing bankers’ bonuses. When Margaret Thatcher famously said ‘I am not a consensus politician. I am a conviction politician’ she was cleverly creating a binary distinction between having conviction, and seeking agreement. In this rhetoric, any politician that sought consensus was weak, whereas she of course was strong.

Importantly, the same binary distinctions are also prevalent in political (as well as everyday) discussions of language. Children should speak ‘proper’ English in the classroom; or, children should have the right to speak their own dialect at school. Immigrants should learn to speak English; or, everyone should have the right to access public services in their own language.

Here’s one example. In the UK, there have been a number of recent reports of schools banning pupils from speaking their local dialect in the classroom. Here, the reasons for such interventions are often framed in terms of ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’ language. In one report, a head teacher from Birmingham complained of increasing numbers of pupils coming through nursery with little or no ‘proper English’. Most people would agree there is a need for children to speak Standard English to access the wider job market. It follows that children should be made to speak Standard English – not the dialect which they have grown up speaking at home.

Elsewhere, there have been reports of growing numbers of school children who do not speak any English when they arrive at primary school. In February 2014, The Daily Mail reported that English will soon become a second language in one in 9 schools in the UK. The growth is driven by immigration, in particular from Eastern Europe. As such it is a highly political issue. In the words of one think tank, ‘Educating children who do not speak English as their mother tongue […] puts a huge financial strain on schools’. Clearly, kids who speak Romanian or Somali or Gujarati – and not English – as a first language are a burden on the taxpayer.

Further afield, reports of ‘last speakers’ dying – taking with them entire languages – are relatively frequent. As academics and language activists have pointed out, when a language dies, so much more is lost too: a culture, an entire world view, and quite possibly a vast body of local knowledge. Of the 7000 or so languages spoken around the world, a significant number of them are under threat from extinction. In USA, for example, of the more than 300 Native American languages originally spoken, fewer than 200 remain; as many as 70 of these languages could become extinct within the next decade.

One of the major driving forces for language death is the growth of a global economy – so, for many, it is unavoidable. Parents don’t want to speak the language of the minority to their children, the state doesn’t want to teach it, and teenagers don’t want to learn it. Because, if young people are to access the best jobs and the best opportunities, they will need to speak English not Washo, Russian not Tuvan, Mandarin not Kanakanavu.

All of these issues of language policy and planning might seem intractable. But perhaps they are not. Perhaps the answer is not a regional dialect or a standard dialect. Perhaps the answer is not Russian or Tuvan.

Although we might be programmed to see the world in terms of opposites, let’s pretend for a moment that the answer is not one language or another. Instead, let’s pretend it is both languages.

Growing up in Britain and speaking English, you could be forgiven for thinking that speaking more than one language – bilingualism – is the exception, rather than the rule. Commentators, educators and business leaders have long bemoaned the deficit in language skills in the UK with, for example, the number of people studying languages at university at an all time low. The British Academy’s 2013 ‘State of the Nation’ report on the demand and supply of language skills in the UK concluded that: ‘There is a strong evidence that the UK is suffering from a growing deficit in foreign language skills at a time when globally the demand for language skills is expanding’.

As such, it may not be at all obvious that speaking two languages could be the answer to anything. But further from home bilingualism (or multilingualism, defined simply as speaking more than one language) is actually more common than you might think.

In Switzerland, for example, speaking more than one language is a fact of life. With four official languages the State Government, and much of local Government, simply couldn’t function without widespread bilingualism. And in the Philippines, as well as national languages Filipino and English, at least another 100 languages are spoken. Bilingualism is so prevalent, that it’s not uncommon for Filipinos to happily code-switch between both Filipino and English – as is the case for many bilingual communities around the globe. Worldwide, something like 1 in 3 people routinely use two or more languages for work, family life and leisure (Li, 2007).

In fact, bilingualism turns up pretty much everywhere – even in the UK. In Wales and Scotland, for example, significant numbers of people speak Welsh or Gaelic as a first language, as well as English. TV drama Hinterland, for example, recently broke ground by being filmed in both Welsh and English language versions, using the same actors. Even among native English speakers, there are people who buck the (monolingual) trend. Current England manager Roy Hodgson, for example, has managed football teams in 5 different languages – arguably with the least success managing his current side in his mother tongue.

As the media has been quick to report, immigration to the UK is driving rapid growth in multilingualism. As a result, London has become one of the most linguistically diverse cities in the world. Today, over 300 languages are spoken across the city. Over a third of children in London will speak English at school, but a language other than English at home (Gibson, 2007). Interestingly, this gives rise to the paradox – also common to USA and Australia – of both second language deficiency and extreme multilingualism.

And, if you extend the concept to those people that can speak more than one dialect of English, then many more people could be considered bilingual. It’s not uncommon to know more than one dialect of a language and use each of them selectively in different contexts. One of them might be the local (say West Country) dialect we grew up speaking and still use with our family; the other might be the Standard British English we use when we speak to our boss.

There’s also a growing body of scientific evidence to show the cognitive benefits of speaking a second language. Bilingual people, for example, are found to be better at filtering out irrelevant information in ‘conflict tasks’. Some studies have found that bilingual people perform better in creative problem solving tasks. Recently, researchers have shown that babies brought up hearing more than one language have a greater thirst for novel images, indicative of a high IQ in later life. Bilingualism may even hold back the onset of dementia in later life. And brain scans have shown that learning another language can, quite literally, make the brain grow. And there are social benefits too. Learning languages opens up the possibility of understanding entirely new cultures, and new ways of life. Just as some languages hold words for concepts that don’t exist in other languages, learning multiple tongues can offer perspectives on the world that aren’t available in a single language.

Slide1So, what about the banning of ‘incorrect’ English in school? Few people would disagree that speaking a standard language is a necessity for accessing the wider job market. But many people would also argue that to dismiss regional dialects as inferior (‘incorrect’ or ‘improper’) is surely problematic – not least because it can damage the confidence of vulnerable young people. The answer, of course, is that children should be encouraged to value their own dialect – and their ability to speak it – as well as the Standard English they will need in wider society.

And what about the problem of ever increasing numbers of school children in UK who arrive at primary school not speaking English? The answer is that they should be taught to speak English at school and – at the same time – they, their teachers and wider society should value their ability to speak a second language. As others have pointed out, at a time when the UK’s language skills are sorely lacking, these bilingual children will be a rich resource for the future. We should drop the negative spin, and focus on the positive.

And finally, what about the problem of indigenous communities abandoning their native language to speak the language of the majority? As linguist K. David Harrison points out in his book The Last Speakers, the answer is the same:

‘It’s certainly fair to ask: “Aren’t kids better off shedding a small local language and becoming globally conversant citizens?” In response, wouldn’t an even better scenario be kids who increase their brainpower by being bilingual and enjoy the benefits of both a close-knit ethic community and a sense of national or global participation?’

In all three cases, the answer is bilingualism. We should move away from debates about language, and any policies that follow, which are based on ‘either…or’. Instead we should be talking about language only in terms of ‘and’.

Politically, this will still require a huge paradigm shift – especially in countries where policies of monolingualism (like Napoleon’s ‘One nation, one language’) have been firmly entrenched for centuries. But such policies are near-sighted at best. In his book, I think Harrison sums it up nicely when he says:

‘[…] we live in a society that curiously undervalues bilingualism. Millions of school children spend countless hours drilling the verb forms of Spanish, while just a classroom away, millions of other children who speak Spanish with their parents at home and could be fully bilingual are shamed for having a slight accent and intimidated into giving up their Spanish. “English only” is one of the most intellectually ruinous notions ever perpetuated upon American society, and one of the most historically naïve. We have always been a multilingual society, even before we became a nation.’

In the USA, as elsewhere, policies of monolingualism are not the answer. They could actually be part of the problem.

So, do you want to maintain the intellectual wealth contained within local languages and dialects, at the same time as acknowledging the need for national standards and lingua francas? Do you want your students to be proud of their heritage, but have the skills and confidence to compete for jobs nationally? Do you want to have employees that will make you more sales worldwide, and help you beat your competitors in the global marketplace? And do you want to increase your creativity, hold off dementia, and literally grow your brain?

The answer is simple. The answer is bilingualism: Value it, support it, celebrate it.



Gibson, M. (2007). Multilingualism. In D. Britain (Ed.), Language in the British Isles (pp. 257-275). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Li, W. (Ed.). (2007). The Bilingualism Reader (2nd ed.). Oxford: Routledge.

The Inbetweener: Scots-English Code-switching and the Genius of Robert Burns

ImageRobert Burns was born on 25 January 1759 in a village in the Scottish county of Ayrshire. He died, 37 years later, one of the most celebrated poets Britain has ever produced.

Burns was famously the ‘Ploughman Poet’ – a farmer’s son, a drinker, a lover. It was an image he himself cultivated: he was someone who had his hands in the earth, and his nose in a jar. He was, in his own words, a ‘simple Bard, rough at the rustic plough’.

Key to this identity was Burns’ mother tongue. Burns grew up speaking Scots a language which, although derived from Anglo-Saxon, had diverged significantly from the English spoken in the south (Johnston, 2007). In Scots, many words with the same root are markedly different, phonologically, to the English equivalent: ‘hoose’ for ‘house’ and ‘kirk’ for ‘church’, for example. There are also many lexical differences: ‘bairn’ in Scots, for example, means ‘child’. In syntax and morphology, there are many differences too. Present participles and gerunds, for example, tend to be marked in Scots with ‘-in’ rather than ‘-ing’.

Scots is clearly the defining language of Burns’ poetry. Here’s the opening stanza from his famous early work, ‘To a Mouse’:

Wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie,
O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
Wi’ bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an’ chase thee,
Wi’ murd’ring pattle!

Though Burns liked to present himself as a ‘heaven-taught ploughman’ – hewn from the earth, and inspired by whisky and the Gods – this is only half the story. For Burns, like the 20th Century’s greatest bard, was also a learned man. He was well educated, possibly not much worse than much of the Scottish gentry. He read extensively form an early age, and his poems feature references to figures from the Greek lyrical poets to Adam Smith. Burns was well acquainted with the English poets of the era. He was also probably a rather moderate drinker for the age (Smith, 2007).

Burns moved to Edinburgh when he was 27. Here, in the capital, the language of the educated classes was Scottish Standard English – a dialect emerging since the Union as a compromise between Scots and the English of the south (Johnston, 2007). This was the language of formality, polite conversation, and high society. It was also one in which Burns was equally adept. 

Burns seems to have been both attracted and repelled by his new social circle. In reality he was, an inbetweener – not quite at home in rural Scotland, not quite at home amongst Edinburgh’s literati. According to University of Glasgow’s Jeremy Smith, Burns’ complex identity was manifest in much of his writing. Even in his personal correspondence, Burns could choose to write in either Scots or English, depending on which ‘Robert Burns’ he wanted to portray. Sometimes he wrote in a mixture of the two; just like many modern speakers of Scots, he could code-switch freely.

Burns used this ability to alternate between the two languages to great effect in his later poetry (Smith, 2007). Smith cites the example of ‘Tam O’Shanter’, Burns’ last major poem and possibly his finest (see here for a recent modern translation):.

When chapman billies leave the street,
And drouthy neebors, neebors meet,
As market-days are wearing late,
An’ folk begin to tak the gate,
While we sit bousing at the nappy,
And getting fou and unco happy,
We think na on the lang Scots miles,
The mosses, waters, slaps and styles,
That lie between us and our hame,
Where sits our sulky sullen dame,
Gathering her brows like gathering storm,
Nursing her wrath to keep it warm.

The final couplet of the poem’s first stanza, unlike the lines that precede it, are in English (‘warm’ and ‘storm’ would not have rhymed in Scots). As Smith (2007) points out, the shift from Scots to English, and corresponding change in rhythm, also marks a transition from narrative to figurative language (p. 83).

As Burns himself admitted, his knowledge of Scots and Scottish Standard English provided him with copia verborum (an ‘abundance of words’). It gave him the language he needed – Scots, English, or a mixture – for every context and situation.

Like Shakespeare writing for the Globe’s groundlings and its seated royalty, although he was himself neither of them, Burns could speak to both the upper and lower classes.  Burns was neither ploughman, nor gentry; he was something more. His genius lay in exploiting all the linguistic possibilities his identity – as an inbetweener – offered him.


Johnston, P. A. (2007). Scottish English and Scots. In David Britain (ed.) Language in the British Isles (pp. 105-121). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Smith, J. J. (2007) Copia Verborum: The Linguistic Choices of Robert Burns. The Review of English Studies, 58, 73-88.