By German Diaz, WATG Board Member
As part of a class in the field of Applied Linguistics, my undergraduate students at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee were asked to explore the theme of bilingualism and its relationship with giftedness. These students are preparing to become ESL teachers and since most of their courses focused on learning and language, I wanted to challenge them to think of language or better yet, the ability to speak several languages, as a gifted trait.
Traditionally, giftedness has been associated with areas of reading and math. Thus, many of my former students struggle to find a connection between bilingualism and giftedness, although most, if not all of them, pointed out the pragmatic ability to speak more than one language as a definite talent.
There are few doubts that learning a language is a huge challenge. However, there are people who can learn a second or third language with little or no difficulty. Could these individuals be considered linguistically gifted? It is estimated that only 15 to 20 percent of all Americans are bilingual, compared to 56 percent of Europeans. Although such a difference in the number of people being able to speak more than one language between Americans and Europeans is significant, there are many reasons associated with this reality, including the need to communicate and interact with others (need and interest), an aspect that until now seemed unnecessary for the average American person.
In Canada, for example, until quite recently the definition and educational implications of giftedness had not encompassed bilingualism as a separate cognitive or social construct, even though cognitive advantages of child bilingualism have been thoroughly researched over the past 40 years. According to Joseph Renzulli (1986), “gifted and talented children are those possessing or capable of developing a composite set of traits and applying them to any potentially valuable area of human performance”. The composite set of traits Renzulli referred to is the core of his three-ring conception of giftedness: above- average ability, task commitment, and creativity (Renzulli, 1978). This should include people whose mental abilities allow them to learn one or more languages. Valdés (2003) presented one of the few studies available to date that attempt to bridge the conceptual gap between child bilingualism and giftedness. In her study of the intercultural interpretation practices of school-age bilinguals in immigrant communities, Valdés claimed that “these youngsters display abilities that are in many ways more sophisticated than those measured by verbal analogies, cloze procedures and items found on standardized tests of intelligence”. As a result, bilingual individuals “exhibit a range of abilities that can be considered within a framework of exceptionally cognitively competent individuals”.
Expanding our notion of giftedness at the local and national level, as well as daring to think outside the set limits takes risk and courage. Giftedness comes in many shapes and forms, and perhaps it is time to begin considering bilingual and/or multilingual individuals as truly gifted. What is your opinion?