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Benefits of Bilingualism- Language Article #6

Hello! If you are totally new to these articles, it's a series where every month I bring you a brand new article from off the web about language or culture and break it down, and hope to spark some intellectual discussion and to teach people more about the languages in the world. I did not do January's due to a lot of life events, and I apologize! If you're interested in catching up, you can find last December's here. If you are joining us again, welcome back!

This month's will be rather short because I'm short on time and interesting articles so here we are. This article is titled How a second language can boost the brain and is written by Ramin Skibba. This article follows in the interview of pyscholinguist Mark Antoniou, and covers topics such as benefits of bilingualism, kids and bilingualism, and more. I hope you find this article as interesting as I did.

Even when you’re fluent in two languages, it can be a challenge to switch back and forth smoothly between them. It’s common to mangle a split verb in Spanish, use the wrong preposition in English, or lose sight of the connection between the beginning and end of a long German sentence. So — does mastering a second language hone our multitasking skills or merely muddle us up?

This is how the article begins, sparking that question I feel like we've all asked ourselves while learning- is learning this language even worth it? What do I get out of it? Well, according to this article, a lot.

Apparently, this argument has been going on for quite some time. Many psychologists in the 1920s said that learning a second language can hurt a child's cognitive ability as they get older. But of course, science has only continued to prove that wrong.

1st question- What are the benefits of bilingualism?

The first main advantage involves what’s loosely referred to as executive function. This describes skills that allow you to control, direct and manage your attention, as well as your ability to plan. It also helps you ignore irrelevant information and focus on what’s important. Because a bilingual person has mastery of two languages, and the languages are activated automatically and subconsciously, the person is constantly managing the interference of the languages so that she or he doesn’t say the wrong word in the wrong language at the wrong time.

I never knew learning a language can boost my planning skills, this was news to me. Well, you learn something new everyday.

Anyway, the article continues on--

The brain areas responsible for that are also used when you’re trying to complete a task while there are distractions. The task could have nothing to do with language; it could be trying to listen to something in a noisy environment or doing some visual task. The muscle memory developed from using two languages also can apply to different skills

I actually have noticed that my focusing skill has increased since I started learning a language two years ago. Sometimes, when I’m walking around town I look at objects and translate them into German, and I can focus on this as well as walking in a noisy environment. In class, I find it easier to tune out everyone else to focus on my studies. I never directly correlated it with language but I guess now I realize that language does impact focus.

Question number two- Where are these benefits expressed in the brain?

Executive functions are the most complex brain functions — the most “human” functions that separate us from apes and other animals. They’re often observed in parts of the brain that are the newest, in evolutionary terms: the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for advanced processing; the bilateral supramarginal gyri, which play a role in linking words and meanings; and the anterior cingulate. Studies show that the bilingual experience alters the structure of these areas.

Bilateral supramarginal gyri?? Ok, I’m not even going to attempt to think about this deeply. Mainly- learning a second language can actually change the structure of parts of your brain… hopefully in a positive way?

It’s positive… the next paragraph reads

First of all, we see increases in gray matter volume. The brain is made up of cells called neurons, which each have a cell body and little branching connections called dendrites. Gray matter refers to how many cell bodies and dendrites there are. Bilingual experience makes gray matter denser, so you have more cells. This is an indication of a healthier brain.

(if you go to the original article there’s a really interesting photo about this, I suggest you check it out)

Question number three- Can teaching children two languages delay or confuse their understanding?

These myths about bilingualism date back to studies in the US and the UK from the First and Second World Wars. They were seriously flawed studies involving children from war-torn countries: refugees, orphans and, in some cases, even children who were in concentration camps. Their schooling had been disrupted for years. They may have suffered traumas, and then they participated in these studies with tests measuring their verbal language abilities. Unsurprisingly, they scored very poorly on these tests. Did the researchers attribute the poor scores to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)? They probably didn’t even know what that was. No, instead they attributed it to the children’s bilingualism. It wasn’t until the 1960s, when a really important study was published by Elizabeth Peal and Wallace Lambert at McGill University in Montreal, that views started to shift. Their findings showed that not only do bilingual children not have a cognitive delay or mental retardation but that their bilingualism actually has some cognitive benefits.

I knew someone once who thought that kids who are bilingual at a young age would grow up and not be able to differentiate between the two languages, which is absurd. I told her that at the time but honestly I didn't have any evidence to support my statement (but neither did she, go figure).

But now I understand where she probably got this misconception from.

Question number 6 (I skipped number 5 for time, you can go back and read it if you'd like)- Learning languages as a child is different than doing so later in life, right?

Before I get on with this one, I was surprised by the answer.

It depends. For a long time, it was thought that the only way to really learn a language was to do it early. It was thought that after adolescence, you couldn’t learn a language perfectly. You were always going to be accented. But we now know that that’s not true, because there are many people who learn languages as adults, and they learn them very well. So this has led us to reexamine what it is about learning a language during childhood that makes it different from adulthood.

If you're anything like me, I thought that you were going to have a much easier time learning a language as a child versus being a grown adult.

Is your brain more ready and more flexible — what we call more “plastic” — when you’re a child, and then it becomes more rigid and fixed as an adult? Or is it that the conditions of language-learning are different when you’re a child, in terms of the amount and type of input you receive, how much slack you’re afforded and how much encouragement others give you? An adult who is working two jobs and going to language classes at 7 o’clock at night has a different type of acquisition than a child constantly receiving input from the mother, grandmother, father or other primary caregiver. Ultimately, the difference between language-learning in children and adults is probably some combination of the two: plasticity and conditions. There are also individual differences. If you put different people in the same situation, some people will flourish and others will struggle.

This makes a lot more sense than what I believed. Your aptitude for learning a language depends on the individual and the environment. Obviously, if your environment is more stressful (An adult who is working two jobs and going to language classes at 7 o’clock at night) it's going to be harder for your brain to process learning a language. As a child, you have plenty of free time and very little stress, allowing a lot of, say, "Stretching room" for your brain to learn more things. Maybe you're an adult but you live a similar stress-free lifestyle as a child. You might find it easier to learn.

But I still think that it's similar to losing weight. You're still being molded into someone when you're young, therefore it's easier to lose weight. Same with learning a language. Your brain will just absorb the information because it's just leeching up information.

But there's just the sad truth that some people are just going to find language learning extremely hard and challenging, and people who'll learn a language easily and fluently. Of course, this doesn't mean there's a set group of people who'll ever be able to learn a 2nd language. It'll just take a lot more time.

Question number seven- Does a bilingual brain age differently than a monolingual one?

We know from studies that starting at the age of about 25, your brain starts to decline, in terms of working memory, efficiency, processing speed, those kinds of things. As you age, these declines become steeper. The argument is that as we get into older age, bilingualism puts the brakes on and makes that decline less steep. ...

When you look at bilingual individuals who have suffered neurodegeneration, their brains look damaged. From their brain scans, you’d think these people should be more forgetful, or that they shouldn’t be coping as well as they are. But that’s not the case. A bilingual brain can compensate for brain deterioration by using alternative brain networks and connections when original pathways have been destroyed. Researchers call this theory “cognitive compensation” and conclude that it occurs because bilingualism promotes the health of both gray and white matter.

Also something I didn't know. Bilingual brains can make alternate pathways when others fail, which is insane. People who know a second language will have a stronger brain for longer! This is really galvanizing, and if this doesn't motivate you to learn another language, I don't know what will.

Question number eight- Could learning a language later in life keep Alzheimer’s at bay?

Please say yes.

That is a working hypothesis. We’re doing studies where we teach a foreign language to people aged 65 and up with the goal of promoting healthy brain function, even at such a late point in life. What we’re testing is: Can we help people in old age by using language-learning? Does that give you some benefit in terms of a “use it or lose it” approach to brain health?

The initial signs are encouraging. Preliminary data look good. It seems that learning a language in later life results in positive cognitive outcomes.

Because language-learning and use is so complex — arguably the most complex behavior we human beings engage in — it involves many levels. You have speech sounds, syllables, words, grammar, sentences, syntax. There’s so much going on; it really is a workout for a wide brain network. And those areas of the brain overlap with the ones in which aging adult brains show decline or neurological pathological disease. As a result, we argue that learning a second language would be an optimal activity to promote healthy aging.

Even though this is aggravatingly vague, it's enough to understand. You're not losing anything by learning a second language, and the studies out there are encouraging it's most likely having a positive effect on your memory. Either way, learning a second language will set you up for a very promising future.

Due to time, I didn't include the last two questions. If you're interested, just read the entire article. I hoped you enjoyed this month's article! I enjoyed learning about this topic. Have a lovely day!

Btw I might not be following up with another article next month, but I promise this isn't the last of these articles.

February 21, 2019



Cool post! I love learning about how languages can help your brain.


Very interesting article and excellent reporting on your part!


That's very kind of you! Thank you for reading


That is really interesting thanks for posting, are the benefits higher if you know more than two languages or is it the same or unknown?


probably not? I don't really have enough information but I'm pretty sure learning more than two will benefit you a lot more than just two.


so amazing !, please accept this lingot as form of gratitude <3.

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