Growing up monolingual vs bilingual. Who is the better translator?

Essay, 2015

13 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Growing up monolingual vs. bilingual - Who is the better translator?

At the IUED at Heidelberg University, many different students from all over the world gather to learn and improve their translation abilities. This is probably one of the places with the most students who grew up bilingual studying together. However, there are not only students who grew up bilingual, but also students who grew up monolingual. After studying for some time, most of the students ask the question: Who is the better translator? There are several assumptions about growing up bilingual, positive ones as well as negative ones. Every single one can be found on the internet posted by people worrying about their own children or other children, and it can also be found in various books about the matter. One of those assumptions is also " Children who grow up bilingual will make great translators when they grow up" (, so it is a legitimate question to ask, who is better – students who grew up bilingual, or students who grew up monolingual and learned a second language later in life?

To investigate this matter, many questions have to be analyzed. The main question is about the issue of growing up mono- or bilingual and becoming a translator. In order to analyze this question, it is best to divide the analysis into several sub-points. The first point addresses the following areas: the definition of mono- and bilingual, the brain activity and development of children who grew up monolingual compared to children who grew up bilingual, the pedagogical question of how children learn, how adults learn, and do children really learn languages better and faster than adults; and if no, how can adults have the same learning success as children. The second regards the translator: What does it mean to be a translator and what abilities are important to be one? Is it enough to know languages just as a foreigner, or does the translator have to be a native speaker of both languages he or she translates?

To understand what is generally meant by the words monolingual and bilingual, the words have to be defined. The definition for monolingual from the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary is rather easy to comprehend: "speaking or using only one language" (Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary). There is no extra information hidden in the meaning of the word monolingual, unlike the meaning of the word bilingual: "able to speak two languages equally well because you have used them since you were very young"(Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary). The word bilingual means that one has used two languages equally since he or she was very young, which raises the question, is it only possible to be bilingual if one has learned the second language at a very young age, and what age precisely is very young? According to that definition, it also means that someone who has learned a language after a very young age is not bilingual, but rather multilingual, because the definition of multilingual just means to speak or use "several different languages" (Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary). It is not easy to determine the very young age the definition references, because opinions differ from case to case. Barbara Zurer Pearson, an expert in the area of bilingual research, said that "Learning a second language is easier for children under 10, and even easier for children under 5, compared with the much greater effort it takes adults" (The Blissful Toddler Expert: The complete guide to calm parenting and happy toddlers). Various other experts think that the optimal time "seems to be from birth to 3 years[…]the next best time for learning a second language appears to be when children are between 4-7 years old, because they can still process multiple languages together and continue to build a second language alongside the first and learn how to speak both languages fluently" (The Blissful Toddler Expert: The complete guide to calm parenting and happy toddlers). A term in psychology that is used to specify the limit of age, after which learning a second language becomes more difficult, is the critical period for language learning. Critical period itself means "a period in a lifetime during which a specific stage of development usually occurs. If it fails to do so, it cannot readily occur afterwards" ( However, the term critical period means that if that period is over, there is no possibility to achieve the same results as someone who has achieved the knowledge within that period. On the other hand, "the observation that 'earlier is better' only applies to certain kinds of learning, which schools typically cannot provide" (Handbook of Bilingualism). For now, even if those opinions are inconsistent, it is most important to accept that there are different opinions regarding the critical period, and for that reason, the critical period of language, if there is one, is added to the research results.

Before moving on to the topic of brain activity and the development of mono- and bilingual, one last term has to be defined. Monolinguals have only one native language, but bilinguals have two native languages. For bilinguals, it is important to know what a native language or a mother tongue is. The mother tongue is "the language that you first learn to speak when you are a child"(Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary). So even in the definition of the mother tongue, age is an important matter. On the other hand, to have a more differentiated opinion about what is important to be a native speaker, the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages might help. However, it is mentioned that the highest language level C2 "is not intended to imply native-speaker or near native-speaker competence" ( So to find out what it means to be a native speaker, the research results of the brains of mono- and bilinguals might give a hint.

The brain is the organ that "controls movement, thought, memory and feeling"(Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary). It is divided into the right and left hemispheres, and "each hemisphere controls the opposite side of the body[…] In general, the left hemisphere controls speech, comprehension, arithmetic, and writing. The right hemisphere controls creativity, spatial ability, artistic, and musical skills. The left hemisphere is dominant in hand use and language in about 92% of people." ( The hemispheres are connected through the corpus callosum, which is "a bundle of fibers […] that delivers messages from one side to the other" ( The brain's surface is called "the cortex and contains neurons (grey matter), which are interconnected to other brain areas by axons (white matter). The cortex has a folded appearance."( "The cerebral hemispheres have distinct fissures, which divide the brain into lobes. Each hemisphere has 4 lobes: frontal, temporal, parietal, and occipital." ( The lobes important for language are the frontal lobe, the parietal lobe and the temporal lobe ( The frontal lobe controls "speaking and writing"; the parietal lobe "interprets language [and] words", and the temporal lobe has the function of "understanding [a] language"(

The critical period in the development of the brain is from birth to five years, because "neither the cerebral cortex nor the corpus callosum are fully developed at least through the age of 5" (Handbook of Bilingualism), and because of that, it is hypothesized that "languages acquired after the brain is relatively mature may be functionally organized in distinct ways from those learned earlier"(Handbook of Bilingualism). As already mentioned, the "left hemisphere [is] the dominant hemisphere for language" and especially "for grammar" (Handbook of Bilingualism). This is important to keep in mind when discussing the research results. One of the general arguments is that "early bilinguals are generally highly proficient whereas late bilinguals tend to vary in their L2 [(second language)] proficiency"(Handbook of Bilingualism). In the Handbook of Bilingualism the term bilingual is used equally for everyone who speaks at least two languages, so they make no difference between people who grew up bilingual and people who learned a second language after the age of five years.

The difference between early bilinguals and late bilinguals is that late bilinguals are "more LH [(left hemisphere)] dominant for language as compared to early bilinguals, who showed more bilateral hemispheric involvement overall" (Handbook of Bilingualism). Late bilinguals also "failed to show patterns [(at syntactic processing)] of brain activity similar to those of native speakers" (Handbook of Bilingualism). Nevertheless, the left hemisphere shows less activity in both groups (early and late bilinguals) "than did monolinguals"(Handbook of Bilingualism). In a study with two groups of six early bilinguals and six late bilinguals, when given the task to generate sentences in the first and the second languages, the areas of the left frontal lobe, which were activated, were common for the first and the second language "in early bilinguals and spatially separated areas [for the first and the second language in] late bilinguals"(Handbook of Bilingualism). The less proficient languages in a "study carried out in a group of quadrilinguals" produced more brain activity "within the left prefrontal cortex"(Handbook of Bilingualism). The prefrontal cortex deals with the short-term memory ( That said, it is also noticeable that the brain of a low proficient bilingual is more active than the brain of a high proficient bilingual (Handbook of Bilingualism 509). Furthermore, the brain of an early bilingual also has less brain activity while using language (Handbook of Bilingualism). "Many linguistic and neurophysiological studies have found that late learners are typically less proficient than early learners […] in particular domains of language, such as grammar" (Handbook of Bilingualism). However, the question remains, is there no way to develop the proficiency of someone who grew up bilingual? Therefore, one need to know which areas are activated in a monolingual's brain.

Monolinguals as a group were LH[(left hemisphere)] dominant overall when collapsed across paradigms and tasks. However, monolinguals showed the bilateral involvement on tachistoscopic viewing paradigms and bilateral involvement on tasks with visual demands. (Handbook of Bilingualism)

A tachistoscope is "an apparatus for use in exposing visual stimuli, as pictures, letters, or words for an extremely brief period" ( The bilateral activity during the visual tasks is obvious due to the right hemisphere's ability to "comprehend visual imagery"(, and because both eyes are involved. This is comparable to the brain activity of early bilinguals when using a language. The bilinguals, regardless of language acquisition age, "showed LH [(left hemisphere)] dominance for tasks with auditory demands and bilateral involvement for tasks with visual and global demands" (Handbook of Bilingualism). That is to say, they more often use both hemispheres than monolinguals. Therefore, in another study with a face discrimination task, monolinguals did better than bilinguals, because the right hemisphere showed less activity in early bilinguals than in monolinguals (Handbook of Bilingualism). It is hypothesized that "the neuronal space available for nonlinguistic functions in bilinguals is 'crowded' by the demand for additional cortical space needed to process the two languages" (Handbook of Bilingualism). Consequently, there is not enough space for other functions besides language. Moreover, learning multiple languages at a young age "may affect not only the organization of language [in the brain], but also that of nonlinguistic functions" (Handbook of Bilingualism).

In a study, a "homogenous group of 12 high-proficiency bilinguals", who learned the second language after the age of five years was tested. They had to do various phonological and semantic word generation tasks in the first and the second language. Notably, the research results differ from the previously mentioned outcomes that resulted in a clear distinction between a later learned language and the native language, because there was "no evidence that a language learned later in life may be differently represented from the native language" (Handbook of Bilingualism). In another phonological study, a "homogenous group of early and high-proficiency bilinguals" showed "more extensive brain activity" to subjects less known by the participant "even when [the participant was] highly proficient for that language" (Handbook of Bilingualism). They "hypothesized that the brain activations were related to exposure and practice" (Handbook of Bilingualism). In other studies, it is mentioned that the "age of acquisition is a major factor in the organization of L2 [(second language)] processing," but also, that there is a possibility "that language proficiency, rather than age of acquisition, may be the crucial factor in determining the neural organization of language processing in bilinguals" (Handbook of Bilingualism). That is to say, there is a chance that language proficiency developed after the critical period can possibly become the level of a native speaker like an early bilingual. In 1999, in a cued word generation task, there were no differences found in the brain activity of early bilinguals and late bilinguals; that means as long as "the degree of proficiency in bilinguals is very high, a common neural network is activated independent of age of acquisition" (Handbook of Bilingualism). Lastly, a study consisting of two high-proficiency groups with the task to listen to stories in their first language and their second language was made (Handbook of Bilingualism). The first group consisted of late bilinguals and the second group of early bilinguals (Handbook of Bilingualism). The results showed that "the patterns of brain activity" were overlapping (Handbook of Bilingualism). These facts underline the prediction that language proficiency is the crucial factor. Also, other research results support the fact that there are no differences between the brain activities of early bilinguals and late bilinguals "if they are highly proficient in both languages" (Handbook of Bilingualism).


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Growing up monolingual vs bilingual. Who is the better translator?
University of Heidelberg  (IUED)
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bilingual, monolingual, language, linguistics, translation studies, translator, learning languages, brain research, germanistik, Übersetzungswissenschaft, Übersetzer, Linguistik, Übersetzung, einsprachig, zweisprachig, Sprachenlernen, Sprache lernen, Hirnforschung
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Julien Appler (Author), 2015, Growing up monolingual vs bilingual. Who is the better translator?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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