A little information heavy but I thought I’d share :)
How the Brain Benefits From Being Bilingual
Today, more of the world’s population is bilingual or multilingual than monolingual. In addition to facilitating cross-cultural communication, this trend also positively affects cognitive abilities. Researchers have shown that the bilingual brain can have better attention and task-switching capacities than the monolingual brain, thanks to its developed ability to inhibit one language while using another. In addition, bilingualism has positive effects at both ends of the age spectrum: Bilingual children as young as seven months can better adjust to environmental changes, while bilingual seniors can experience less cognitive decline.
We are surrounded by language during nearly every waking moment of our lives. We use language to communicate our thoughts and feelings, to connect with others and identify with our culture, and to understand the world around us. And for many people, this rich linguistic environment involves not just one language but two or more. In fact, the majority of the world’s population is bilingual or multilingual. In a survey conducted by the European Commission in 2006, 56 percent of respondents reported being able to speak in a language other than their mother tongue. In many countries that percentage is even higher—for instance, 99 percent of Luxembourgers and 95 percent of Latvians speak more than one language.1 Even in the United States, which is widely considered to be monolingual, one-fifth of those over the age of five reported speaking a language other than English at home in 2007, an increase of 140 percent since 1980.2 Millions of Americans use a language other than English in their everyday lives outside of the home, when they are at work or in the classroom. Europe and the United States are not alone, either. The Associated Press reports that up to 66 percent of the world’s children are raised bilingual.3 Over the past few decades, technological advances have allowed researchers to peer deeper into the brain to investigate how bilingualism interacts with and changes the cognitive and neurological systems.
Cognitive Consequences of Bilingualism
Research has overwhelmingly shown that when a bilingual person uses one language, the other is active at the same time. When a person hears a word, he or she doesn’t hear the entire word all at once: the sounds arrive in sequential order. Long before the word is finished, the brain’s language system begins to guess what that word might be by activating lots of words that match the signal. If you hear “can,” you will likely activate words like “candy” and “candle” as well, at least during the earlier stages of word recognition. For bilingual people, this activation is not limited to a single language; auditory input activates corresponding words regardless of the language to which they belong.4
Some of the most compelling evidence for language co-activation comes from studying eye movements. We tend to look at things that we are thinking, talking, or hearing about.5 A Russian-English bilingual person asked to “pick up a marker” from a set of objects would look more at a stamp than someone who doesn’t know Russian, because the Russian word for “stamp,” “marka,” sounds like the English word he or she heard, “marker.”4 In cases like this, language co-activation occurs because what the listener hears could map onto words in either language. Furthermore, language co-activation is so automatic that people consider words in both languages even without overt similarity. For example, when Chinese-English bilingual people judge how alike two English words are in meaning, their brain responses are affected by whether or not the Chinese translations of those words are written similarly.6 Even though the task does not require the bilingual people to engage their Chinese, they do so anyway.
Having to deal with this persistent linguistic competition can result in language difficulties. For instance, knowing more than one language can cause speakers to name pictures more slowly7 and can increase tip-of-the-tongue states (where you’re unable to fully conjure a word, but can remember specific details about it, like what letter it starts with).8 As a result, the constant juggling of two languages creates a need to control how much a person accesses a language at any given time. From a communicative standpoint, this is an important skill— understanding a message in one language can be difficult if your other language always interferes. Likewise, if a bilingual person frequently switches between languages when speaking, it can confuse the listener, especially if that listener knows only one of the speaker’s languages.
To maintain the relative balance between two languages, the bilingual brain relies on executive functions, a regulatory system of general cognitive abilities that includes processes such as attention and inhibition. Because both of a bilingual person’s language systems are always active and competing, that person uses these control mechanisms every time she or he speaks or listens. This constant practice strengthens the control mechanisms and changes the associated brain regions.9-12
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