Lolo, Ubongo, Cerebro, Cervello, Cerveau, Brein = BRAIN!
Know any of the above words from ubongo to brein? If so, you can (surprisingly to you of course) say BRAIN in Hawaiian, Swahili, Spanish, Italian, French, or Dutch. And if you can (read this and) fluently speak at least one of these languages, or another not shown, you are multilingual (again, SO surprisingly to you…) – and may consequently reap some benefits from this status!
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, at least 13% of Americans are bilingual. They speak a language other than English at home and can speak English “well” or “very well.” Henceforth, studies on bilingualism are relevant and many have actually demonstrated differences between monolinguals and bilinguals.
Despite political adversity, educational neuroscientists have advocated the study of second languages in school and the use of a second language at home, especially before age five or six. According to a briefing from the Society for Neuroscience website, monolingual and bilingual children have been found to reach the language milestones at the same time and the latter are not “language confused” as some adversaries and earlier theories would suggest.
Several studies have demonstrated that bilinguals perform better than monolinguals on many executive control tasks, including attention, control, concentration, inhibition, and prioritizing. In the Los Angeles Times, Ellen Bialystok from York University in Toronto who has studied bilingualism for nearly 40 years discussed a study in which she found that bilinguals “manifested a cognitive system with the ability to attend to important information and ignore the less important.” Compared to monolingual children, bilingual children would pick out silly sentences like “apples grow on noses” but also note that they are still grammatically correct.
Additionally, bilingual people were found to “multitask better, pick out key information faster and more effectively ignore surrounding distractions.” In the Stroop test, where one must say the color of the letters rather than the word made up from the letters (e.g. the word blue written in red), bilingual people had faster reaction times than monolingual people – 160 milliseconds compared to 240 milliseconds.
Another study by Krizman et al. in 2011 noted that bilinguals showed “enhanced discrimination of simple, non-linguistic sounds as assessed by a measure of temporal resolution (backward masking) and a measure of frequency discrimination.” Supposedly, bilingual brains can better process “specific sound elements that relate to auditory perception and cognitive abilities.”
Such enhancement of cognitive abilities has been suggested to protect bilingual people from the symptoms of dementia and Alzheimer Disease. According to the Society for Neuroscience website, some theories suggest that “speaking two languages may increase blood and oxygen flow to the brain and keep nerve connections healthy—factors thought to help ward off dementia.”
Another study by Bialystok from 2004 showed that bilingual people had enhanced cognitive function compared to monolingual people. Later studies looking at the medical records of around 400 patients demonstrated that bilinguals also showed Alzheimer Disease symptoms five or six years later than monolinguals.
While learning a language could protect us from showing symptoms of Alzheimer disease, performing any kind of engaging task that requires more than one sensory modality can help. In doing so, the brain strengthens neural networks and could rewire in some areas. According to Bialystok, bilingualism does rewire the brain. Neural connections are different between monolinguals and bilinguals. Neuroimaging demonstrates that, when solving a problem or performing a task, different systems are being used by the two groups. Additionally, another study showed that the inferior parietal cortices of bilinguals have greater gray-matter density in the language-dominant left hemisphere, especially in those who were proficient early on in life. Not only that, but the dorso-lateral prefrontal cortex of the right hemisphere is more active when bilinguals are “toggling” between languages, or in “bilingual mode.” This area has been known to take part in attention and control, and its activity acts as a neural signature of bilingualism.
While more studies are needed to challenge theories, many have persuasively shown that there is a difference between bilinguals and monolinguals, and this difference provides bilinguals an advantage in executive control and prevention of cognitive decline.
What language will you try to pick up?
Brain Briefings – Bilingual Brain, Society for Neuroscience
Bilingualism good for the brain, researchers say – Amina Khan, Los Angeles Times
The Bilingual Advantage – Claudia Dreifus, The New York Times