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You Won't Believe All The Ways Knowing Two Languages Changes Your Brain!

Research in Neuroscience finds ways being bilingual can be an advantage.

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Many people are bilingual.

More than half of the world's population is bilingual. In the U.S and Canada approximately 20% of the population speaks a language at home other than English. In urban areas these numbers are even higher: about 60% in Los Angeles and 50% in Toronto. If we look at Europe, bilingualism is even more prevalent: According to surveys, 56% of the population across all European Union countries reported being functionally bilingual, with some countries having even higher rates, such as Luxembourg at 99%.

A disadvantage?


Till the 1950s, the general consensus was that bilingualism put a child at a disadvantage, hurting I.Q. scores and slowing verbal development. Learning two languages was thought to be confusing for the child. Recently however, through the work of the psychologist Ellen Bialystok research showing the opposite that the opposite is true has come out.

Mixed results.

During a study in Montreal conducted with French-English speaking children, researchers Peal and Lambert found that bilingual children were superior on most tests, especially those requiring symbol manipulation and reorganization. At the same time verbal skills of bilinguals in each language are generally weaker than are those for monolingual speakers of each language. On picture-naming tasks, bilingual participants were found to be slower and less accurate than monolinguals. Slower responses for bilinguals are also found for both word comprehension and production, even when bilinguals do the task in their first and dominant language.

Better executive control?


What seems to be the main advantage for bilinguals however is that at all ages they seem to demonstrate better “Executive control” than monolinguals. Executive control is the set of cognitive skills based on limited cognitive resources for such functions as inhibition, switching attention, and working memory. It emerges late in development and declines early in aging. A way we can explain this advantage in executive control is through the joint activation model. Fluent bilinguals in fact show some measure of activation of both languages and some interaction between them at all times, even in a context where only one of the languages would be thought to be in use. In fact having to manage two jointly activated languages seems to lead to an enhancement of frontal-posterior attentional control mechanisms and consequently other types of cognitive control could be enhanced this way. In fact Bilinguals do sometimes have an advantage in inhibition, in selection, switching and in sustaining attention as well as and bilinguals an advantage in working memory. It in fact seems plausible that intense and sustained experience has an impact on our minds and brains as functional connections are definitely affected by use.

An overstated advantage?

Angela De Bruine a bilingual Psychology Graduate at the University of Edinburgh after reading about the effects of bilingualism on executive functioning decided to herself look at the research conducted on the topic. How she went about this was to look through the conference abstracts from conferences between 1999 and 2012 on the topic of Bilingualism and Executive control. What she found was that in these conference abstracts about half talked about some kind of bilingual advantage on certain tasks while the other half gave some kind refutation of a bilingual advantage. But what was really surprising was that of the studies reporting an advantage 68% were published while only 29% of those who found a monolingual advantage or no advantage at all were published. These findings while not telling us that there isn't a bilingual advantage do make a point of showing how there might indeed be an overstatement of the Bilingual advantage, especially at a younger age.

Another potential advantage. / Via

While the bilingual advantage in terms of executive functioning, at least with current research, may not be as clear as common perception would seem to tell us, one area where it seems to be strongly favorable is in cognitive reserve. Bialystok in her studies found that adults who speak multiple languages seem to resist the effects of dementia far better than monolinguals. While analyzing hospital records of individuals who had been diagnosed with dementia she found that those who spoke more languages were diagnosed on average 3-4 years later. Could it be therefore that when the brain keeps learning, as it seems to do for people who retain more than one language, it has more capacity to keep functioning at a higher level even in old age? If this were true then, isn’t it enough of a reason to learn more than one language?

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