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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Being bilingual boosts brain power

In an interconnected world, speaking more than one language is becoming increasingly common. Approximately one-fifth of Americans speak a non-English language at home, and globally, as many as two-thirds of children are brought up bilingual.
Research suggests that the growing numbers of bilingual speakers may have an advantage that goes beyond communication: It turns out that being bilingual is also good for your brain.
Judy and Paul Szentkiralyi both grew up bilingual in the U.S., speaking Hungarian with their families and English with their peers. When they first started dating, they spoke English with each other.
But they knew they wanted to raise their children speaking both languages, so when things turned serious they did something unusual — they decided to switch to Hungarian.
Today, Hungarian is the primary language the Szentkiralyis use at home. Their two daughters — Hannah, 14, and Julia, 8 — speak both languages fluently, and without any accent. But they both heard only Hungarian from mom and dad until the age of 3 or 4, when they started school.
"When she did go to preschool that accent was very thick – she counted like Vun, two, tree," said Judy Szentkiralyi, recalling Hanna's early experience with English. "And by the time four or five months went by, it was totally gone."
Dispelling Confusion Around Bilingualism
The Szentkiralyis say that most people were supportive, but not everyone. Paul recounts an uncomfortable confrontation Judy once had in the local grocery store.
"I remember one time you came home and you said this one lady was like, 'When is she going to learn English?' And it was like, 'Well, when she goes to school she'll learn English,'" he said.
For a bilingual who really has two good languages that they use, both of them are always active.
"People would often say, 'Well, won't they get confused?" added Judy. "And I would have to explain, 'Well, no, it wasn't confusing for us.'"
The idea that children exposed to two languages from birth become confused or that they fall behind monolingual children is a common misconception, says Janet Werker, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia who studies language acquisition in bilingual babies.
"Growing up bilingual is just as natural as growing up monolingual," said Werker, whose own research indicates babies of bilingual mothers can distinguish between languages even hours after birth.
"There is absolutely no evidence that bilingual acquisition leads to confusion, and there is no evidence that bilingual acquisition leads to delay," she said.
Werker and other researchers say the evidence to the contrary is actually quite strong. Instead of holding you back, being bilingual, they say, may actually be good for you.
Tuning In To The Right Signal
Ellen Bialystok, a psychologist from York University in Toronto, says the reason lies in the way the bilingual mind uses language.
"We don't really know very much in psychology," said Bialystok. "But the one thing that has been so overwhelmingly proven, that I can say with great certainty, is this: For a bilingual who really has two good languages that they use, both of them are always active."
In other words, no matter what language a person is speaking at the moment, both languages are active in the brain.
"The evidence is very dramatic. Even if you are in a context that is utterly monolingual, where you think there is absolutely no reason to think about Chinese or Spanish or French, it is part of the activated network that's going on in your brain," she said.
This means that bilinguals have to do something that monolinguals don't do — they have to keep the two languages separate. Bialystok likens it to tuning into the right signal on the radio or television: The brain has to keep the two channels separate and pay attention to only one.
"The brain has a perfectly good system whose job it is to do just that — it's the executive control system. It focuses attention on what's important and ignores distraction. Therefore, for a bilingual, the executive control system is used in every sentence you utter. That's what makes it strong," said Bialystok.
Remodeling The Brain?
Constantly engaging this executive control function is a form of mental exercise, explains Bialystok, and some researchers, including herself, believe that this can be beneficial for the brain. Bilingual speakers have been shown to perform better on a variety of cognitive tasks, and one study Bialistok did found that dementia set in four to five years later in people who spent their lives speaking two languages instead of one.
"They can get a little extra mileage from these cognitive networks because they have been enhanced throughout life," said Bialystok.
And the advantages of bilingualism may be due to more than just "mental fitness." Bialystok says there's some preliminary evidence that being bilingual may physically remodel parts of the brain. It's something researchers are only beginning to look into, but she says there is reason to believe that speaking a second language may lead to important changes in brain structure as well.


Maura Goldberg COM101 6002 said...

(that last anonymous post was from me).

Nick Pellegrini Com101-6002 said...

Language is such an important and over-looked part of life. Without language, our thoughts, opinions, and emotions would be much more difficult to express. I wish I would have stuck to speaking Spanish outside of school, haha. Hopefully, I will learn to speak another language one day in the near future, considering that it's easier to learn languages when you are younger. I would love to learn Italian someday.

Luisa Galdamez Com 101 Sec HN 4041 said...

i heard this a lot and its true.. and people always ask do you think in for example spanish or english and i tell them both it just depends.. :)

Maura Goldberg COM101 6002 said...

I wish that I knew another language! If possible, I think all parents should raise their kids like this.

dulcenea leae com101-4041 said...

My parents spoke both English and Samoan in our home. I am truly grateful for that because I can communicate with families and friends who don't speak English/Samoan very well. I am interested in learning Japanese and sign language, I'm hoping to take those classes in the future.

taboada hn4041 said...

My sister and her husband are doing this with my baby nephew speaking spanish and english and as he gets older they want to teach him ethiopian too cause my sisters hispanic but her husbands ethiopian but thought three languages would be to hard to start with.

Leslie Gomez- COM. 101 Sec. 4041 said...

Being bilingual is veryy important. I need to practice speaking more spanish fluently, my parents don't speak it as often as they used to.

Alexis Donovan 4041 said...

Haha well considering spanish labels and directions are on almost all products in our country, and half the country speaks spanish, it is definitely a bonus to know and speak both. I took 2 years of Spanish in high school and did not find it to be helpful. They taught us pointless information such as playground equipment...? hahah

Anonymous said...

HALF THE COUNTRY does not speak Spanish..that percentage is closer to 15% or less than one in five, not one in two. Hispanic names represent about 26%, or about one in four Americans.

Alexander Medina Com101 4041 said...

I think being bilingual is very good in todays society. By speaking 2 or more languages your opportunities in the workforce increase. I believe all parents should teach their children another laungauge in the child's early years.