In the first task, the children had to sort the shapes by color, placing 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 were asked to sort by shape, which was more challenging because it required placing the images in a bin marked with a conflicting color. The bilinguals were quicker at performing this task.
The collective evidence from a number of such studies suggests that the bilingual experience improves the brain’s so-called executive function — a command system that directs the attention processes that we use for planning, solving problems and performing various other mentally demanding tasks. These processes include ignoring distractions to stay focused, switching attention willfully from one thing to another and holding information in mind — like remembering a sequence of directions while driving.
Why does the tussle between two simultaneously active language systems improve these aspects of cognition? Until recently, researchers thought the bilingual advantage stemmed primarily from an ability for inhibition that was honed by the exercise of suppressing one language system: this suppression, it was thought, would help train the bilingual mind to ignore distractions in other contexts. But that explanation increasingly appears to be inadequate, since studies have shown that bilinguals perform better than monolinguals even at tasks that do not require inhibition, like threading a line through an ascending series of numbers scattered randomly on a page.
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 not only performed better, but they also did so with less activity in parts of the brain involved in monitoring, indicating that they were more efficient at it.
The bilingual experience appears to influence the brain from infancy to old age (and there is reason to believe that it may also apply to those who learn a second language later in life).
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 an initial set of trials, the infants were presented with an audio cue and then shown 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 a later set of trials, when 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 in the new direction while the other babies did not.
Bilingualism’s effects also extend into the twilight years. In a recent study of 44 elderly Spanish-English bilinguals, scientists led by the neuropsychologist Tamar Gollan of the University of California, San Diego, found that individuals with a higher degree of bilingualism — measured through a comparative evaluation of proficiency in each language — 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 that the words we hear and the sentences we speak might be leaving such a deep imprint?Continue reading the main story
The Gray Matter column on bilingualism last Sunday misspelled the name of a university in Spain. It is Pompeu Fabra, not Pompea Fabra.
Did you know that our world has about 6,500 languages? Sadly, only 20 percent of Americans speak a language other than English, but I think there is a solution to this. Over the past couple years, I have begun to notice that in many schools in the U.S., including mine, students don’t start the process of learning a new language until middle school. It would be extremely beneficial if schools instead thought about putting more money into acquiring bilingual programs for grammar school students.
The easiest way for someone to become bilingual is to start at a very young age, because their brain absorbs the sounds and rules of a new language naturally just like their native tongue. The older you get, the harder it is to learn a language because you have to study grammar rules and work around your already developed first language.
Some people think that a child only has room for one language in their life, and that to learn a second one, they would find it confusing. This is not true and in fact some places, such as Switzerland, have students learn up to two additional languages and by the time they graduate high school many of them are even trilingual.
A new language is one of the most rewarding experiences for anyone, but even more so at a young age. “During the first three years of life, the foundations for thinking, language, visions, attitude, aptitude, and other characteristics are laid down. It would be a waste not to use a child’s natural ability to learn during his or her most vital years when learning a second language is as easy as learning the first,” says Ronald Kotulak, author of “Inside the Brain.”
Some of the most crucial benefits of being bilingual are that a child’s focus, memory, planning and multitasking skills are better than if they are monolingual. Children can also ignore distractions easier because the part of their brain called the “executive function” is stronger in bilinguals, and this of course would benefit their academic performance in the classroom.
A second language can also help when traveling, especially a common one such as Spanish or French. Vacations to foreign countries would be more enjoyable, and it would open people’s minds to the different cultures of the world. My mother and father are fluent in Italian and English, so I know what it is like to be around someone bilingual.
A few years ago, my family and I visited Italy, where most of our relatives live. It was an amazing experience, but I felt a little bit out of place not being fully proficient in the language. Now, I think about how different that trip would have been if I had been able to communicate better. Everyday activities like listening to local music, watching a movie, or just getting a cup of coffee would have been effortless if I had known Italian.
Bilingualism at a young age also leads to many advantages in the long run, such as getting into a good college and having more career options. A second or third language can boost your chances of getting into a more academically advanced institution. Foreign language SAT tests are a great way of standing out during the college admission process. It’s important to show them what you’re capable of, and it can give you a head start by allowing you to complete the basic language requirement before other students. As the world is becoming more globalized, knowing a foreign language in business is also valuable. For example, someone who speaks Spanish has the advantage of communicating with people from 21 different countries worldwide. When applying for a new job, companies will certainly take this into consideration. If schools would teach languages from kindergarten through high school, more students would have the chance to go on to college, and have successful careers.