If you want to know why bilinguals are smarter than the average clever clogs, read on.
Speaking two languages rather than just one has obvious practical benefits in an increasingly globalised world. But in recent years, it has become clear that bilingualism offers more than the ability to converse with more people. Being bilingual, it turns out, makes you smarter. It can improve cognitive skills not related to language and even shield against dementia in old age.
This view of bilingualism is remarkably different from the understanding of bilingualism through much of the 20th century. Experts long considered a second language an interference, cognitively speaking, to a child’s academic and intellectual development.
Bilingual brains work harder
They were not wrong about the interference. In in a bilingual’s brain, both language systems are active even when he is using only one language. This creates situations in which one system obstructs the other. But this interference, researchers are finding out, isn’t so much a handicap as a blessing in disguise. It forces the brain to resolve internal conflict, giving the mind a workout that strengthens its cognitive muscles.
Bilinguals, for instance, seem to be more adept than monolinguals at solving certain kinds of mental puzzles. In a study, bilingual and monolingual preschoolers were asked to sort blue circles and red squares presented on a computer screen into two digital bins — one marked with a blue square and the other marked with a red circle.
In the first task, the children had to place blue circles in the bin marked with the blue square and red squares in the bin marked with the red circle. Both groups did this with comparable ease. Next, the children has to sort by shape. This was more challenging because it required placing the images in a bin marked with a conflicting colour. The bilinguals were quicker at performing this task.
Bilingual brains are more capable
The bilingual experience improves the brain’s so-called executive function. This is a command system that directs the attention processes we use for planning, solving problems and performing other mentally demanding tasks. These processes include ignoring distractions to stay focused, switching attention wilfully from one thing to another and holding information in mind such as sequences of instructions.
Why does the tussle between two simultaneously active language systems improve these aspects of cognition? Researchers thought the bilingual advantage stemmed from an ability for inhibition that people developed through the exercise of suppressing one language system. This suppression, some thought, would help train the bilingual mind to ignore distractions in other contexts. However, studies show that bilinguals perform better than monolinguals even at tasks not requiring inhibition, like threading a line through an ascending series of random numbers.
Increased awareness of surroundings
The key difference between bilinguals and monolinguals may be more basic: a heightened ability to monitor the environment. “Bilinguals have to switch languages quite often. You may talk to your father in one language and to your mother in another language,” says Albert Costa, a researcher at the University of Pompeu Fabra in Spain. “It requires keeping track of changes around you in the same way that we monitor our surroundings when driving.” In a study comparing German-Italian bilinguals with Italian monolinguals on monitoring tasks, Mr. Costa and his colleagues found that the bilingual subjects performed better. In addition, they did so with less activity in parts of the brain involved in monitoring, indicating that they were more efficient at it.
It’s never to early to learn a second language
The bilingual experience appears to influence the brain from infancy to old age.
In a 2009 study led by Agnes Kovacs of the International School for Advanced Studies in Trieste, Italy, 7-month-old babies exposed to two languages from birth were compared with peers raised with one language. In trials, the infants heard an audio cue and saw a puppet on one side of a screen. Both infant groups learned to look at that side of the screen in anticipation of the puppet. But in further trials, the puppet began appearing on the opposite side of the screen. The babies exposed to a bilingual environment quickly learned to switch their anticipatory gaze while the others did not.
Bilinguals more resistant to symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease
Bilingualism’s effects also extend into the twilight years. A recent study of 44 elderly Spanish-English bilinguals found that individuals with a higher degree of bilingualism were more resistant than others to the onset of dementia and other symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. The higher the degree of bilingualism, the later the age of onset.
Nobody ever doubted the power of language. But who would have imagined the benefits to our mental health?