Speaking two languages has obvious practical benefits in an increasingly globalized world. But in recent years, scientists have begun to show that the advantages of bilingualism are even more fundamental than being able to converse with a wider range of people. Being bilingual, it turns out, makes you smarter. It can have a profound effect on your brain, improving cognitive skills not related to language and even protecting against dementia in old age.
This view of bilingualism is remarkably different from the one through much of the 20th century. Researchers and educators used to consider that a second language was an interference that hindered a child’s academic and intellectual development. They were not wrong: there is ample evidence that in a bilingual’s brain both language systems are active even when only one language is being used, therefore creating situations in which one system obstructs the other. But this interference, researchers are finding out, isn’t so much a handicap as an advantage. It forces the brain to resolve internal conflict, making the mind strengthen its cognitive muscles.
Bilinguals, for instance, seem to be better than monolinguals at solving certain kinds of mental puzzles. In a 2004 study by the psychologists Ellen Bialystok and Michelle Martin-Rhee, bilingual and monolingual preschoolers were asked to sort blue circles and red squares presented on a computer screen into two digital boxes—one marked with a blue square and the other marked with a red circle. In the first task, the children had to sort the shapes by colour, placing blue circles in the box marked with the blue square and red squares in the box marked with the red circle. Both groups did this with similar easiness. Next, the children were asked to sort by shape, which was more challenging because it required placing the images in a box marked with a different colour. The bilinguals were quicker at performing this task.
The evidence from such studies suggests that the bilingual experience improves the brain’s executive function—a command system that directs the processes that we use for planning, solving problems and doing other mentally demanding tasks. These processes include avoiding distractions, switching attention from one thing to another and holding information in mind—like remembering a sequence of directions while driving.
The main difference between bilinguals and monolinguals may be more basic: an increased 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,” says Albert Costa, a researcher at the Pompeu Fabra University in Spain. “This requires observing 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 found that the bilingual speakers did them better and needed less brain activity, indicating that they were more efficient.
The bilingual experience appears to influence the brain from infancy to old age. In a recent study of 44 elderly Spanish-English bilinguals, scientists directed by the neuropsychologist Tamar Gollan of the University of California, San Diego, found that individuals with a higher degree of bilingualism were more resistant than others to the onset of dementia and other symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and developed them later.
Nobody ever doubted the power of language. But who could imagine that the words we hear and the sentences we speak might have such a big influence?
Text adapted from The New York Times (March 17, 2012)
- hindered (to hinder): entorpir / entorpecer
- handicap: desavantatge / desventaja
- sort (to sort): classificar /clasificar
- switch (to switch): canviar / cambiar
- monitor (to monitor): observar, controlar
- onset: començament / inicio
Choose the best answer according to the text. Only ONE answer is correct.
[4 points: 0.5 points for each correct answer. Wrong answers will be penalized by deducting 0.16 points. There is no penalty for unanswered questions.]
1. Recent scientific studies have proved that bilingual people
- obtain greater benefits in today’s world.
- are better conversationalists.
- have better cognitive skills than monolinguals. X
- will not suffer from mental diseases in old age.
2. As opposed to the 20th century view, we now know that
- bilingual children had more learning advantages in the past.
- when two languages interfere, they cause many disadvantages.
- language interference is good because it makes the mind stronger. X
- the brain of bilingual people is obstructed more easily.
3. In the first part of a study by Bialystok and Martin-Rhee, both mono and bilingual kids
- had difficulty in classifying the colours in the corresponding circle.
- found it similarly easy to classify the figures according to colour. X
- had problems using the computer.
- put circles and squares together in the same box.
4. In the second part of the study, which was more difficult,
- bilingual kids were faster at solving the problem. X
- there was no difference between the performance of mono and bilingual kids.
- monolingual kids could not classify the figures according to shape.
- both groups of kids encountered the same difficulties.
5. According to the text, which one of the following tasks is NOT carried out by the brain’s executive function?
- Making plans and decisions.
- Retaining a sequence of information.
- Giving directions to people who drive. X
- Changing your focus of attention.
6. According to Albert Costa, changing from one language to another all the time
- makes you observe the changes around you. X
- may improve your driving skills.
- allows you to talk to your father and mother in different languages.
- makes you quicker at changing the things around you.
7. In Mr Costa’s study,
- German-Italian bilinguals required more brain activity on their monitoring tasks.
- Italian monolinguals were not as active as German-Italian bilinguals.
- Italian monolinguals got better results in their monitoring tasks.
- German-Italian bilinguals did their monitoring tasks better and more efficiently. X
8. A study at the University of California revealed that
- monolinguals suffer from more mental illnesses like dementia.
- bilinguals developed some mental diseases at a more advanced age. X
- Alzheimer’s disease is more resistant in monolingual people.
- some people were more resistant to bilingualism than others.