Bilingualism strengthens the brain

Being bilingual makes you smarter, writes Yudhijit Bhattacharjee in the New York Times. Juggling two languages gives “the mind a workout that strengthens its cognitive muscles.”

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.

The cognitive benefits may even prevent dementia in old age.

I’m tutoring a bilingual first grader in reading. When she asked if Spanish was bad, I gave her a pep talk on bilingualism making the brain stronger.

“Dogs can’t really talk,” she responded.

“They can say ‘arf’,” I said. She was not impressed. “No, dogs can’t really talk,” I said. We moved on.

About Joanne

Comments

  1. Being bilingual I’m not terribly impressed by the supposed advantages the capability confers. Being of eastern European extraction I’m even less impressed with the advantages conferred by fluency in six, seven or eight languages. And, I can provide testimony, for whatever that’s worth in a scientific debate, that being fluent in ten languages is not incompatible with being as dumb as a bag of hammers.

    The article comes off as nothing so much as a defense of bi-lingual education that has a rationale beyond the narcissistic impulse that’s the primary motivating force for the policy.

  2. Michael E. Lopez says:

    And running long distances can help improve your physical health, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other ways to stay in shape.

    I mean, really, who wouldn’t have thought that using your brain made it better?

  3. I agree with Michael’s last point. Generally, exercising your brain (i.e. learning new things) makes it stronger. So, I agree that the point that becoming bilingual improves one’s cognitive function(s) is not that interesting. What I think would be more interesting is precisely how learning a new language improve one’s cognitive function(s) (aside from the obvious of learning a new language).

  4. This argument is generally made by people who come by their languages naturally, through birth or being in the right environment such as overseas.

    For those of us with monolingual parents, living in the US, the time needed to learn (really learn, not just a few phrases) and keep a foreign language is overwhelming. And pointless unless one has a real interest or need.

    Musicians like the studies that show learning an instrument is good for the brain. Runners like the running studies, vegetarians like the veggie ones, etc.

  5. the commentariette says:

    If this effect was real and significant in practice, it would show up quite clearly in any number of natural experiments.

    Specifically, we would want a developed country, with large, well-defined bilingual regions that nevertheless have a substantially common national lifestyle and with strong centralized systems of health care and education (to minimize other sources of variation between regions).

    Two obvious examples are Canada and Finland: bilingual Quebec should show clear differences compared to other provinces of Canada, with which it shares similar lifestyles and a common national health and education system. Similarly, bilingual (Swedish-Finnish) districts of Finland should show clear differences relative to other parts of Finland. As far as I know, that’s never been demonstrated.

    For now, I would file this under minor effect observed in laboratory being over-hyped for publicity and/or political correctness value by researchers seeking funding…

    • I know that there have been studies showing that that French/English bilingual Canadians do have a significantly lower rate of cognitive decline with age. I don’t know of any similar studies in Finland.

  6. And American education for the most part pays lip service to this by requiring two years of a foreign language at high school. Whereas all the research points to elementary schools as being the most logical and effective place to begin second language acquisition. My children’s school starts Spanish in kindergarten, and generally by the start of high school the kids are in Spanish IV and then AP Spanish lang/lit.

  7. It’s funny that English speakers across the globe do not, as a rule, speak a second language. Although there are prestigious French immersion schools across Canada, bilingual Canadians tend to be Francophones. As a result, I’ve heard that Quebecois do very well in the Canadian civil service system.

  8. “And American education for the most part pays lip service to this by requiring two years of a foreign language at high school. Whereas all the research points to elementary schools as being the most logical and effective place to begin second language acquisition. My children’s school starts Spanish in kindergarten, and generally by the start of high school the kids are in Spanish IV and then AP Spanish lang/lit.”

    That sounds great.

    My experience with elementary Spanish has been less impressive. I was very excited about my kids starting Spanish in kindergarten, but as it turns out, it’s a very minimal sort of program, and they never really seem to get anywhere with it. (The centerpiece of the program is a Mexican folk dancing performance, which while picturesque, sucks up phenomenal amounts of time in the spring.) Spanish runs from K-3. I was initially bummed out about it ending in grade 3, but now that I’ve seen how minimal the Spanish is, I’m fine with the fact that the 4th graders do Latin (presumably Spanish returns in high school). My 4th grader is making very good progress with her Latin. There’s no reason why the Spanish couldn’t be equally serious, but somehow it isn’t.

  9. Why wouldn’t exercising your brain have health-related benefits in the same way that physical exercise or a good diet do? I am a believer. Whether it can prevent dementia is another question.
    Starting early and investing an adequate amount of time (not only a couple of hours per week) will enable children to learn a second language with ease. That’s why immersion programs are so valuable. French immersion is not only limited to prestigious private schools in Canada. As far as I know, in the province of Ontario, it is offered in public schools and starts with 50% French language instruction in grade 1.

  10. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Didn’t Joanne highlight an article a few months back about how many “bilingual” kids are actually A-lingual? (i.e. fluent in NEITHER….one of the examples was a pre-school kid who was asked his favorite color and said ‘elmo’)

    • What preschooler wouldn’t like the color ‘Elmo’? Admittedly, it might have even been a legitimate answer for a 4 or 5 year old because Elmo does, in fact, have a very vibrant and attractive color.
      Based as my experience as an individual, a parent and an ESL /EFL teacher, I can only say that bilingualism is an achievable goal for nearly — if not all — children and, yes, even adults. However, it requires an adequate investment of time (a few hours a week of standard passive school instruction won’t do it), commitment and competent teachers. An early start is also extremely helpful.

  11. CaliforniaTeacher says:

    Deirdre,
    It’s quite common for bilingual kids to show some lag in the preschool years, but they do catch up.

  12. Here is a recent CBC article that refers to a Canadian study that claims bilingualism can delay the onset of dementia. Here’s the link:

    http://www.cbc.ca/news/health/story/2012/03/29/dementia-bilingual-study.html