Bilingualism: Good for the brain

By Keith Nuthall and Kitty So (Ottawa), and Carmen Paun (Brussels)

Knowing how to speak two languages in a country with two official languages is always going to be a good bet. But apart from the delight of knowing your peanuts from your arachides and your jelly from your gelée, there are a whole host of additional cognitive advantages to mastering two tongues rather than one.

Researchers studying the effects of bilingualism suggest a person’s brain can benefit from using several languages. Loraine K. Obler, a linguistics professor at The City University of New York, says bilingualism helps children understand language structures and adults delay dementia. She says research suggests bilingualism improves a person’s ability to concentrate and multi-task. Using different languages helps the brain practise shifting its attention from one task to another.

Bilingual children are better equipped to acquire other languages, because they understand early on that objects can have different names: “It permits them a more abstract attitude to language,” says Professor Obler, while unilingual children become used to the vocabulary and structure of a single language.

Professor Ellen Bialystok, an award-winning cognitive neuroscientist at Toronto’s York University, co-authored a study that found bilingual children showed greater focus and better understanding of language structure than their unilingual peers.

She has also undertaken research that suggests bilingualism can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Based on a study of the medical records of 400 Canadian Alzheimer’s patients, Professor Bialystok found the symptoms emerged five or six years later in bilinguals than in unilinguals.

Professor Obler points to another study, this one by researcher Gitit Kavé of the Open University of Israel, suggesting cognitive abilities decline more slowly the more languages a person knows. Professor Obler adds there is still no definite answer as to how languages delay dementia, but theorized that “The practice of using languages and monitoring that you’re using them at the appropriate times permits you to keep your brain active in a way that delays Alzheimer.”

But common sense dictates that this is no surprise. When two or more words for an action or object flash into the memory as opposed to one, it is only logical that there are more electrical pulses firing around bilingual grey matter than unilingual. In short, bilingual brains get a better workout, and hence may be better able to resist disease.

Two-year-old Hanna Alboth already speaks three languages. Photo: Anna Alboth

Trilingual at two

Two-year-old Hanna Alboth already speaks three languages. Hanna was born in Berlin, Germany, where she lives with her family. Daughter of a Pole, Anna, and a German, Tomas, Hanna began speaking Polish with her mother, German with her father, and English with their many European friends during trips to Brussels and vacations in countries around the Black Sea.

She has now begun to interpret for her two unilingual grandmothers. “She basically started saying what the other one wanted to express, without anybody asking her to do so,” explains Anna. She has helped her mother too: when she would notice Anna struggling with a German word she had chosen, she would repeat it in Polish.

When the Alboth family welcomed their second daughter, Mila, Hanna chose to speak English to her younger sister. “I can tell from experience that bilingual children are much more emphatic, because they are less fixed to the concept of language, they know one thing can have different names and you can look at it from different perspectives,” concludes Anna.

Published on Friday, June 08, 2012

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