Thursday, October 14, 2010

English über alles?

As a grownup, I rarely read the comics any more. Oh, the occasional volume of The Far Side or Calvin and Hobbes—maybe, maybe, if you push me, Get Fuzzy—but I don’t pick up a newspaper to read them. I have something much, much funnier: The Wall Street Journal’s “Personal Journal.”

It’s a section that comes out five or six times a week (sometimes my siblings steal it, or parents censor it, so I’m not quite sure), with a different theme each day. There are money days (a little redundant, one would have thought, in WSJ), food days, fashion days, health days. The best are when they try to give you advice about raising children. Tattoos are in but videos for children under two are more or less out; did you know that?

Occasionally the “Journal” publishes a line that they have to know is a screamer. For example, in the article on the new Eebee series for the very young, writer Anjali Athavaley quotes someone hawking the DVDs.

Parents need advice on how to interact with their child, says co-founder Stephen Gass, whose career includes stints as head of product development for Viacom’s new media group and president of the online division at Sesame Workshop, the maker of “Sesame Street.” “Most parents are going to deplete their peekaboo repertoire pretty quickly,” Mr. Gass says. “What do you do then? Our goal was to be a catalyst for real-world play.”

Don’t tell me Athavaley kept a straight face on that one! (And, as a quick refutation of Mr. Gass’ theories on the borebility of babies, I offer the Chestertonian insight here.) From the context it’s fairly obvious that here at least, the reporter recognized the primary motivation of her source ($$$), and played it for a laugh.

But then . . . but then . . . there are the articles that are so deadpan one can’t detect the least wriggling of a tongue. Case in point: the Tuesday edition of the “Personal Journal” (Health & Fitness), included a piece by Shirley S. Wang on “Building a More Resilient Brain.” (Pieces like this always make me feel like a dinosaur; I realize suddenly that the WSJ caters to a much older generation than my own.) “Resiliant Brain” offers the study-based revelation that bi- and multilingual sufferers from dementia, while receiving the same amount of brain damage as their unilingual contemporaries, manifest the exterior symptoms three to four years later. The scientists’ conclusion was that somehow, speaking more than one language “helps bilingual individuals better handle memory deficits.” Plausible, to be sure. What was funny was not the conclusion itself (which like that of so many studies, is really not so surprising as the concluders seem to find it), but the way the story was handled. After the cheery opening sentence, “A lifetime of speaking two or more languages appears to pay off in old age . . .” the article spends as much time backpedaling as it does elaborating. A second language won’t stop Alzheimer’s, but it’s like having an extra tank of mental fuel. No one knows whether you have to be fluent in the second language to get the benefits, or how often one has to speak it. No one knows how old you should be when learning the second language. (Nor is there any mention of whether people who read a second language, like Latin or Greek, can expect the same benefits as those who speak one. Figures.)

Lest anyone think that I am demanding too much of a simple study, let me tell you that the primary source for the article, Ellen Bialystok, spent “decades” studying bilingualism . . . Which raises the question: Does studying people who’ve studied a second language carry the same benefits as studying the second language did? Because if not, I’m unsure how much weight we should be giving to Dr. Bialystok’s testimony at this point in time . . .

In all seriousness, though, the real shockers were the penultimate and antepenultimate paragraphs of the article, which I publish here in full.

Other research, however, complicates the picture of the potential benefits of multilingualism. A recent review of the medical records of some 600 people at a Montreal memory clinic showed a protective benefit for people who were fluent in more than two languages and for bilingual people who learned French before they learned English.

English-only speakers, however, fared just as well as multilingual people who learned English first. This anomaly might be explained by the English-speakers' particular genetics, nutrition, stress levels and environmental exposure, says Howard Chertkow, a cognitive neurologist at Jewish General Hospital in Montreal and a professor at McGill University, one of the authors on the study.

Lest you missed the point, let me repeat the crucial sentence: “English-only speakers, however, fared just as well as multilingual people who learned English first.” God bless the Canadians! Their medical insurance may be in shambles, but their research will save the world yet. The significance of this research is astonishing. First, we English speakers may have to face dementia at some time. So be it. But no amount of effort will save us from that fate. Unlike obesity, heart disease, and a host of other medical woes, this is one ailment which we can do absolutely nothing to postpone!

I’m so relieved.

The second conclusion to the Canadian research is equally inspiring: if you learn English after learning another language, you stave off old age memory loss. Yet another reason for all immigrants to undergo English language testing before they receive citizenship! “Das ist für der own goot, meine freunde.”

I’m not sure if this is funny or not. But Ms. Wang’s obliviousness—and that of the scientists she quotes—that is funny. That is.


  1. I would like to know what the test group was for this, because I can render the void rather easily I believe.

    The quality of life in English-speaking countries is on average much higher than in others (we are the "first world" remember?). When an emigrant comes to America, the U.K., Australia, he learns English as his second language, and VOILA! his life expectancy, literacy, medical attention, and everything else appreciates.

    This brilliant study then tells us that it just so happens that the people who learn English second benefit from the language! Is the language so remarkable, or should we not rather conclude that the society and culture (such as it is) of the Anglo-world is better than any other...

  2. Chertkow's suggestion too?

    "Render the void"??