Do the languages you speak affect your well-being? By which I don’t mean, does speaking language X make you happier, on average, than speaking language Y? Nor am I thinking of the body of evidence – somewhat controversial and definitely complex – that there is a bilingual advantage for particular cognitive functions. Rather, in a particular linguistic context, how do language choices – which languages you learn, which languages you lose – influence life satisfaction?
Take Johannes. His parents are German but he’s been in the UK since he was just a tot. He feels more British than German and doesn’t want to waste time at the weekend at the community language school, or even to talk to his parents in German. After all, they can speak English, so even when they try to talk to him in German, he answers back in English, which is the language he uses with most of his friends. It can cause quite a bit of friction at home, and it does make trips to his grandparents trickier, but that doesn’t happen so often. Or what about Amira: she’s happy speaking Turkish with family and friends, but hasn’t learnt to read or write the language. Now she’s growing up, that makes it harder to investigate her questions about identity herself. And there’s Sandra: she only learned English at home, but school Spanish, and now degree, has given her experiences and friendships across the world.
These examples are made up, but perhaps you can identify with one. The recent OECD Pisa report looked at well-being in young people across the world for the first time, and found that one of the main predictors was communication within the family: where parents spent time just talking with their child, he or she was over 60% more likely to report high levels of life satisfaction. Likewise, in UK The Good Childhood Report 2013 found that talking with parents about things that matter, as well as seeing friends and extended family, were positively associated with well-being. Good communication and the relationships that it builds, of course, involve language. What happens when members of a family – or community – can no longer talk to one another, or not fluently?
There is some evidence that maintaining a home language – like speaking German, Turkish, Arabic or any of the hundreds of languages spoken in UK – as well as learning the language of the community – in our case English – can be beneficial for well-being, precisely through this crucial link between quality of relationships and well-being.1 Annick De Houwer talks about ‘harmonious bilingualism’, where “on the whole children and their families do not experience any interpersonal problems because of the language contact situation, or have a clearly positive experience with bilingualism” (2013:170).2 Of course, the picture is going to be a complex one, with the social characteristics of the community, prestige of the languages, and many other factors playing a role. However, these are fascinating and necessary questions to ask, in our increasingly multilingual society – and ones which are only just beginning to see research to answer them. Members of the Cambridge Bilingualism Network are hoping to lift the lid on some of the issues, so watch this space for more thoughts on multilingualism and well-being in the coming months!
1. E.g,. Tannenbaum, M., & Berkovich, M. (2005). Family relations and language maintenance: Implications for language educational policies. Language Policy, 4(3), 287–309.
2. De Houwer, A. (2015). Harmonious bilingual development: Young families’ well-being in language contact situations. International Journal of Bilingualism, 19(2), 169–184.