Bilingualism has hit the headlines this weekend, with some fascinating new research findings. Bilingualism is a brilliant skill in my opinion. To be able to speak fluently in more than one language, or even to think in more than one language, not only aids communication but must surely help expand your view of the world and philosophical approach to it.
Bilingualism – mental recycling?
Debates have raged for many years about just how children learn language so quickly and so well but most studies agree that the earlier children learn a second language, the better they are with that language. Some psycologists used to believe that the confusion of learning two languages at once impeded a child’s cognitive development. This view has been much criticised. Indeed The Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists issued guidance in 2006 that “bilingualism in a child or adult is an advantage and does not cause communication disorders”.
Now a new study has confirmed the benefits of bilingualism but at the other end of the age scale. It seems the skill confers some protection against the onset of Alzheimer’s, with bilingual speakers holding the disease off for an average of four years longer than monoglots. Ellen Bialystok, a psychologist from York University in Toronto, said:
“Being bilingual has certain cognitive benefits and boosts the performance of the brain… It won’t stop them getting Alzheimer’s disease, but they can cope with the disease for longer.”
Her research, published in Neurology, looked at more than 200 Canadians with probable Alzheimer’s – half of whom were monolingual and half of whom were bilingual. Cognitive impairment started later on average in the bilingual patients. In patients who were matched for cognitive level, education, job history and immigration background, bilingualism delayed the onset of Alzheimer’s symptoms by four to five years on average.
Bialystok said switching between different languages seems to stimulate the brain:
“It seems to be adding to people’s ‘cognitive reserve’, like other social, mental and physical activities that give some protection against dementia in older people who maintain an active lifestyle… It is rather like a reserve tank in a car. When you run out of fuel, you can keep going for longer because there is a bit more in the safety tank.”
Interestingly, the effect seems most pronouced in people who speak two languages every day, and have to choose between two sets of words all the time.
Another study, by Judith Kroll of Penn State University, supports the idea that bilingualism boost brain power. She found that bilingual speakers could outperform monoglots in mental tasks and focusing on important details. Kroll concludes:
“We would probably refer to most of these cognitive advantages as multi-tasking… Bilinguals seem to be better at this type of perspective-taking… The received wisdom was that bilingualism created confusion, especially in children. The belief was that people who could speak two or more languages had difficulty using either.
“The bottom line is that bilingualism is good for you.”
• Jon Wedderburn is an expert on multilingual content for print and online at WorldAccent Translation, London