Bilingualism’s benefits outweigh pitfalls

Until the first half of the 20th century, bilingualism was thought to be the reason for children having communication problems such as delayed speech and confusion between languages. According to other myths and misinterpretations being exposed to two languages damages the academic proficiency of the child. Although bilingual speakers of all ages may mix their languages together and suffer more ‘ tip of the tongue’ moments, recent research implies that bilingualism does not have a negative effect on children because bilinguals develop better cognitive functions than monolinguals.

The relationship between the cognitive ability and bilingualism is explored in a study published in 1962 by Peal and Lambert, who compared the results of monolinguals and bilinguals on a variety of standard intelligence tests. The subjects were 10-year old children from six different schools in Montreal who spoke French or English and French.

Bilinguals were expected to achieve lower scores but, unexpectedly, they were superior in most tests, especially in those requiring non-verbal skills and symbol manipulation. A few disadvantages were noted and were explained to be due to the fact that bilinguals require the additional processing cost of knowing two languages rather than one. These weaknesses are related to verbal skills, grammar, having a smaller vocabulary and being slower and less accurate in picture naming tasks.

Further research has also shown other positive effects such as better performance in spatial working memory test and control in staying focus by avoiding distractions and inhibiting irrelevant and misleading information. The bilingual speaker is characterized by languages that, although there is always one that domains the other, these are constantly active at the same time and switch according to different circumstances.

According to Albert Costa, a researcher at the University of Pompeu Fabra in Spain, the constant switching of languages “requires keeping track of changes around you in the same way that we monitor our surroundings when driving.” More specifically this has a positive impact on the brain’s executive control system, which enables multitasking and problem solving. Therefore, bilinguals are likely to have a more flexible and sharp mind.

The multitasking ability of young bilinguals has also been researched in a 2009 study conducted by Agnes Kovacs of the International School for Advanced Studies in Trieste, Italy. In these tests 7-month-old babies, exposed from birth to one and two languages, were tested with an audio cue and then shown a puppet on one side of a screen. At first all the infants learned together to look in anticipation at the puppet. However, when this began appearing on the opposite side of the screen, the babies exposed to multiple languages quickly learned to switch their attention in the new direction. It has also been demonstrated by Janet Werker, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia, that at the age of 7 months, infants can differentiate two languages by distinguishing the grammatical structures and the duration of sounds; there is therefore no confusion between native and second languages even from early age.

Bilingualism even benefits the elderly; knowing two languages improves the mental acuity of the person. Different studies have compared the cognitive function of monolingual and bilingual patients. One of the largest experiments in this field was conducted by researchers at Edinburgh University who examined the medical records of 648 Alzheimer’s patients in the Indian city of Hyderabad.  It has been shown that the bilingual patients are subject to less brain degeneration and, on average, have a 4 year delay to the onset of cognitive and behavioural manifestations of dementia and neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s. This effect is crucial for Alzheimer’s research and may explain why older people tend to have better maintained white matter in their brain.

Between 2004 and 2011 different studies showed that people activate and utilise the brain’s functions differently depending on the language spoken and the age when they were learnt. English and Chinese, for example, have different rules for grammar and phonology and different areas of the brain are activated when each language is used. In English, verbs are stored in the frontal region of the brain and nouns are processed further back of the brain. Chinese, on the contrary, activates words broadly across the brain. Research found that if a person learns English and Chinese at an early age, they will use the brain differently according to the language in use. If a native Chinese speaker learns English as a second language after the age of 12 then English words will also be activated broadly in the same neurological manner of Chinese.

Varying brain activity between languages shows that adults and children use their brain differently according to when they learn their second language. Children pick up information more easily but this does not necessarily decrease the ability of an adult to learn another language. Recent studies demonstrate that, for adults, the obstacle isn’t a biological one; rather it is a perceptual one. According to Amy Finn, a postdoctoral researcher at MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, children learn much easier because they do it unconsciously, without the distractions of other knowledge and life experience. This argument is still under debate and not enough research has been conducted in this field.

What is known is that more than half of the world’s population is, at least, bilingual and this prevalence will increase in time. The benefits of being bilingual vastly surmounts the few apparent disadvantages. Research has confirmed that bilingualism has positive effects on all ages, therefore even if an adult may be less receptive, one is never too old to learn a new language.


Michelle Coan


Image courtesy of Gwydion M. Williams, image hosted on Flickr.

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