Multilingualism, or the act of using or promoting multiple languages, is now a worldwide phenomenon thanks to globalisation. Multilingual speakers now outnumber monolingual speakers in the world’s population. Although there is some discussion regarding how to define bilingualism or fluency in a language, it is commonly perceived as someone who can communicate actively (speaking and writing) in another language. Those who can only understand a second language, through listening or reading, are known as receptive bilinguals. Receptive bilingualism may occur when a child thinks that the community language is more prestigious than the language spoken within the household and chooses to speak to their parents in the community language only. Receptive bilingualism is not the same as mutual intelligibility, which is the case of a native Spanish speaker who is able to understand Portuguese, or vice versa, due to the high lexical and grammatical similarities between Spanish and Portuguese.
There are some issues that certain bilinguals may have trouble with, such as code switching, or the process of ‘swapping’ between languages, often when proficiency in certain lexical domains is lacking, and calquing, knowingly or unknowingly converting elements of one language into elements of the other language, i.e. using words like courrier noir (literally mail that is black) in French, instead of the proper word for blackmail, chantage. However, the idea that speaking several languages confuses the brain and might even hinder cognitive development has recently been widely disputed. Many experts held the belief that people who could speak two or more languages had difficulty using either. When speaking to each other, bilingual people can quickly switch between two languages, usually choosing the word or phrase from the language that best expresses their thoughts. However, bilinguals rarely slip into a second language when speaking to people who only speak one language.
It is well known that language processing is one of the most complex activities carried out by the brain. According to the American linguist Noam Chomsky, the “language acquisition device”, or the mechanism which enables an individual to correctly recreate the rules (grammar) and certain other characteristics of language, wears out over time, which explains why many adults and adolescents have trouble learning a second language. However, for those polyglots who were not raised in a bilingual or even trilingual environment, one theory suggests that a spike in testosterone levels in the womb can increase a brain’s asymmetry, creating a greater incidence of left-handedness, autoimmune disorders, learning difficulties, homosexuality and talents in art, music and languages. By any means, both those who have acquired second languages or those who brought up speaking two or more languages are now thought to benefit from an array or cognitive advantages.
The variety of advantages stemming from multilingualism is just starting to become apparent. Newspapers from around the world have published articles describing the positive effects of bilingualism. These range from being able to communicate with individuals from around the world, to improving executive functioning in the brain (the ability to pay attention, plan, organize, and strategize). Multilingualism has also shown to enhance mental processes such as memory, inhibition (the ability to refrain from carrying out one rule), shifting (the ability to make the change and act on another rule) and the ability to multitask and to prioritize. Further studies have shown that speaking a second language fine tunes the nervous system that governs hearing as well as other mental processes.
A study of bilingual people carried out by Judith Kroll, a psychologist at Penn State University, supported the idea that the mental workout needed to constantly manage multiple linguistic systems increases cognitive flexibility and makes learning easier. She found that bilingual speakers could outperform monolinguals in mental tasks such as editing out irrelevant information and focusing on important details. Bilinguals were also better at prioritizing and multi-tasking, she said.
In another study that compared bilingual English and Spanish speaking teenagers with English-only speaking teens, bilingual teens were significantly better at encoding speech sounds, meaning that their nervous system, which governs hearing and enhances attention and working memory, was better tuned. Researchers maintain that this is a result of advantages in auditory attention.
Learning a second language and speaking it regularly doesn’t only improve your cognitive skills, it can also delay the onset of dementia, according to researchers who compared bilingual individuals with people who spoke only one language. In research published recently in the journal of Neurology, scientist Ellen Bialystok looked at 211 people with probable Alzheimer’s disease, 102 of whom were bilingual and 109 monolingual, and noted the age at which the patients’ cognitive impairment had started. Her results showed that bilingual patients had been diagnosed 4.3 years later, on average, and had reported onset of symptoms 5.1 years later than monolingual patients. She said switching between different languages seems to stimulate the brain so that it builds up a cognitive reserve. “It is rather like a reserve tank in a car. When you run out of fuel, you can keep going for longer because there is a bit more in the safety tank.”
According to Dr. Teresa Parodi, lecturer at the University of Cambridge, some children are at risk of losing their second language because the language is not deemed to be “useful”. However, she stated that it is important to increase awareness regarding the usefulness of bilingualism so that this does not occur. We here at Express Language Solutions believe that although bilingualism is very beneficial in terms of its cognitive effects and would be interested in seeing more studies carried out. Please give us your opinion!
- A Global Perspective on Bilingualism and Bilingual Education (1999), G. Richard Tucker, Carnegie Mellon University