An increasing number of young people are moving from Spain, Italy, and Russia to more prosperous working countries like Germany. Even in Australia, 28.1% of the population in 2014 were born overseas, and one third of Australian children speak a language other than English.
An increasing number of young people are moving from Spain, Italy, and Russia to more prosperous working countries like Germany. Even in Australia, 28.1% of the population in 2014 were born overseas, and one third of Australian children speak a language other than English. But many do not maintain their language proficiency, because parents fear that mastering a foreign language could hamper school learning. Indeed, it was thought for many years that a foreign language could hurt a child’s IQ and verbal development. Yet in recent years new evidence has emerged proving the contrary – that bilinguals have an edge. In a 2012 review of all studies examining this, Professor Ellen Bialystok of the University of Toronto found bilinguals did indeed show enhanced executive control – a quality that has been clearly linked to better academic performance. And when it comes to qualities like sustained attention and effective task switching, bilinguals seem to do better.
The Bilingual Advantage
Why might bilinguals have an advantage here? One theory is that for each language you learn, you learn a set of rules procedures and structures which help your brain to understand the language. But you don’t usually hear the words in isolation, says Professor Albert Costa, a neuropsychologist at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, Spain. Words are deeply rooted in context – so your brain is constantly anticipating what comes next when you are speaking or reading.
When you are bilingual – you anticipate two sets of words and meanings. For example, a monolingual will look at a dog and think ‘dog’, while a bilingual will have two alternatives come to mind. The bilingual will always need to make decisions that a monolingual does not need to make – ie. which word to use – and so bilinguals brains are always working a bit harder. These micro-decisions strengthen executive function; the more your brain has to make the same kind of choices, the better connected the wiring becomes.
Professor Arturo Hernandez of the University of Houston wanted to test the difference between brains of bilinguals and monolinguals. He asked participants to identify objects, while using fMRI scans to see which parts of their brains were activated. Hernandez found that bilinguals showed more activity in the prefrontal cortex than monolinguals, which is the part of the brain responsible for executive function.
So what is executive function? Executive function helps you to manage your time, pay attention, switch focus, plan and organize, remember details, and do things based on your past experiences. Better executive control leads to you to do just about everything brain related better!
Building One’s Vocabulary
Improved executive functioning can be beneficial in many ways. In addition, many people say that knowing one language helps them to learn a new one. But despite the clear advantages of bilingualism, a clear disadvantage does exist. A monolingual child will only need to develop one vocabulary, while a bilingual will have to build two.
Many factors affect the acquisition of vocabulary – what one speaks at home, how much they read, what language they use at school, parental diligence, and so on. Although bilingual children will be slower initially in building up their vocabulary, many often make up for this later on in secondary school, so parents should not worry. The clear benefits in adulthood clearly outweigh the slower early progress.
Shaping our Habits
What’s more – language shapes how you view the world and your habits. Professor Keith Jan, and economist, found that people with weak future tenses, such as German, Finnish and Estonian, were 30% more likely to save money, 24% more likely to avoid smoking, 29% more likely to exercise regularly, and 13% less likely to be obese than speakers of languages with strong future tenses, like English. Yet English is an international language, that can help you get a job and speak to foreigners – at home and abroad. It seems that bilinguals get the best of both worlds!
Nobody ever doubted the power of language. But who would have thought that the words we hear and the sentences we use may be leaving such a deep imprint…
1: Valenzuela, M. (2008). Brain Reserve and the Prevention of Dementia. Current Opinion in Psychiatry, 21, 296-302.