Bilingual brain brilliance

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.

Welsh - English bilingual recycling sign
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

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4 Comments

  1. Kith
    Posted 24 March 2011 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

    I agree, it is absolutely great to thing in two or more languages, it feels like your brain is alive! :) Also, you do not need interpreting services but you can actually provide them yourself and make a living out of something you love doing anyway!

  2. Tom
    Posted 24 March 2011 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

    Providing interpreting services is a serious business, knowing languages is not enough you also need to have a lot of experience and subject-related knowledge

  3. Jean Paul Pelletier
    Posted 15 April 2011 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    Being one Canadian who was exposed to both French and English in my pre-school years gave me a huge advantage in life. I speak both languages with equal ease and without accent. I would highly encourage parents to offer their children the opportunity to speak the other Canadian official language by whatever means at their disposal. Children don’t really know they are learning a language at an early age, all they know is that a word which sounds like ‘this’ is understood by the parent or friend. One word at a time. I honestly believe that people who can carry a musical note have an easier go at languages. The ear hears the sound which must be reproduced. That is ‘language’. People repeat sounds, therefore, if your teacher has an accent, chances are the learner will have a similar accent.

  4. sheryl
    Posted 6 February 2012 at 7:18 am | Permalink

    So true.In modern days, communication with different language should not hinder us to compete in business. I mean there is a lot to be said for community translations, especially in areas where companies do not deem it necessary to localize for other markets (such as fansubs of Japanese anime etc.) or there simply isn’t a company behind a product (open source software anyone?). But if you are running a business and trying to make the most out of the opportunities presnted by globalization, using professional translation services is the only way to go.

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