Why Bilinguals Are Smarter

“Hello! ¡Hola!” (……Damn, I am smart!)

Have I gone mad?! Did my ego blow out of proportion? No! Really all I did was read the New York Times…

Speaking two languages rather than just one has obvious practical benefits in an increasingly globalized world. But according to an article published in the New York Times last year, being bilingual in fact makes you smarter.

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In recent years, scientists have begun to show that bilingualism can have a profound effect on your brain, improving cognitive skills not related to language and even shielding against dementia in old age.
Throughout most of the 20th century, researchers, educators and policy makers considered a second language to be an interference hindering a child’s academics and intellectual development. They were wrong. But not about the interference part, though.

In a bilingual brain, both language systems are active even when only one language is being used, thus creating situations in which one system obstructs the other. But this interference, researchers are finding out, isn’t so much a handicap as a blessing in disguise. Why? It forces the brain to resolve internal conflict, giving the mind a workout that strengthens its cognitive muscles.

Bilinguals, for instance, seem to be more adept than monolinguals at solving certain kinds of mental puzzles (see the 2004 study by psychologists Ellen Bialystok and Michelle Martin-Rhee).

The collective evidence from a number of different studies suggests that being bilingual improves the brain’s so-called executive function — a command system that directs the attention processes that we use for planning, solving problems and other mentally demanding tasks, inlcuding 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 key difference between bilinguals and monolinguals seems to be more basic than scientists used to think: a heightened 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 language,” says Albert Costa, a researcher at the University of Pompeu Fabra in Spain. “It requires keeping track of changes around you in the same way that we monitor our surroundings when driving.
(Shocking!! If this is true… Can someone please explain why it took me six times to pass my driver’s license exam?! 😉 )

The “bilingual experience” appears to influence the brain from infancy to old age — and there is reason to believe that it may also apply to those who learn a second language later in life (!!).

7-month-old babies exposed to two languages from birth compared with peers raised with one language. The infants were presented with an audio cue and then shown a puppet on one side of a screen. Both infant groups learned to look at that side of the screen in anticipation of the puppet.
But in a later set of trials, when the puppet began appearing on the opposite side of the screen, the babies exposed to a bilingual environment quickly learned to switch their anticipatory gaze in the new direction while the other babies did not (Agnes Kovacs, 2009).

Old Age
Bilingualism’s effects also extend into the twilight years. A recent study found that individuals with a higher degree of bilingualism — measured through a comparative evaluation of proficiency in each language — were more resistant than others to the onset of dementia and other symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease: the higher the degree of bilingualism, the later the age of onset.

Nobody ever doubted the power of language. But who would have imagined that the words we hear and the sentences we speak might be leaving such a deep imprint?

Indeed! Yet another reason – and an invaluable one! – to start (or continue) learning foreign languages. Well… I guess you all know where to find me! 😉

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