Monolingualism may seem like linguistic disability when the list of the benefits of learning another language is getting longer by the day: improved memory, enhanced cognitive abilities, better social skills, delay of the onset of Alzheimer’s.

Until recently it was believed that teaching children a second language too early might impede ‘normal’ learning of their mother tongue. This belief is based on the assumption that the brain has limited learning resources and two languages compete for resources. The belief is reflected in the contemporary education practice which tends to offer formal schooling in a second language in later school years, not in the developmentally crucial toddler years of learning.

Another myth that still perpetrates is that knowledge acquired in one language is not accessible in another language. Everyday experience says something different: if you learn the basic principle of addition in English, you are able to apply this skill to French numbers when you learn French.

Neuroscience has now completely rejected the myths that the brain is set for one language only: learning a second language not only boosts children’s brains during infancy, it also protects against decline in brainpower in old people.

Brain imaging of monolinguals and bilinguals shows that both process their individual languages in a fundamentally similar way: monolinguals (in one language) and bilinguals (in both languages) show increased activity in language processing areas of the brain. The one important difference is that bilinguals appear to recruit more of the neurons available for language processing than monolinguals. This provides a fascinating insight into the language processing potential not used in monolingual brains.

Bilingual parents often opt to ‘hold back’ one of the family’s two languages in their child’s early life. ‘They believe that it may be better to establish one language firmly before exposing their child to the family’s other language so as to avoid confusing the child,’ says Laura-Ann Petitto, an American cognitive neuroscientist who is a leading researcher in the new discipline of neuroeducation. They also worry that earlier bilingual exposure may put their child ‘in danger of never being as competent in either of two languages as monolingual children are in one’.

Her research supports the idea that bilingualism can invigorate rather than hinder a child’s development. It also rejects the flip side of this myth – later exposure is better.

Other studies show that young bilinguals are more flexible learners. Although infants in bilingual households have to learn roughly twice as much about language as their monolingual peers, the speed of learning is nearly the same for both. It seems that, far from being confused, infants in bilingual households develop superior mental skills which play a critical part in complex social behaviour.

Bilinguals also excel on tasks that require dealing with conflicting information. The brain can perform automated processes quickly and unconsciously; but when it has to process information for more than one task simultaneously, it manages its limited attention resources by inhibiting or stopping one response in order to say or do something else.

Bilingual people often perform better than monolinguals on the classic Stroop test (naming aloud the colours of words printed in incompatible ink colour; for example, word ‘blue’ printed in red ink): everyone takes an additional fraction of a second to accomplish than if both the word and colour are the same. But the lag for bilinguals is measurably shorter; this gives bilinguals lifelong advantage.

Ellen Bialystok, a psychologist at York University in Canada, has found that bilingual people tend to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia, four to five years later than monolinguals. She believes that switching between languages strengthens the brain’s ‘cognitive reserve’ – it can be compared to a reserve in a car tank which keeps you going a little longer when you run out of fuel.

A study by Thomas Bak of the University of Edinburgh also supports the Canadian finding that those who are fluent in two languages begin to show symptoms of dementia more than four years later than those who only speak a single language. Bak’s results were also true for a group of people who were illiterate, suggesting that the benefits of bilingualism are independent of education.

The bilingual brain is constantly suppressing one language and switching between the two. The permanent switching and suppressing offers the best brain training. Older people are encouraged to start new brain-challenging activities such as playing bridge or solving Sudoku puzzles. These activities can engage your brain only for a few hours a day, while bilingual brain is always engaged as it tries to limit interference from the other language to ensure the continued dominance of the intended language.

The most recent findings on bilingualism come from psychologist Katherine Kinzler of Cornell University and her colleagues. Their conclusion: learning more than one language not only improves children’s cognitive abilities but also their social abilities. ‘Children in multilingual environments have social experiences that provide routine practice in considering the perspectives of others,’ Kinzler says. ‘They have to think about who speaks which language to whom, who understands which content, and the times and place in which different languages are spoken.’

To ensure that children’s social abilities were not just another instance of greater cognitive skills that bilingual children have been observed to have, the researchers gave extra tasks to their study group of American children, ages 4 to 6, from different linguistic backgrounds. The results showed that something other than cognitive skills — something more ‘social’ — must explain children’s facility to adopting another’s perspective.

English has now emerged as a global language and translation apps on smartphones are becoming smarter day by day, yet learning another language has benefits other than simply communicating with non-English speakers.

© Surendra Verma 2016

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