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The Benefits of Being Bilingual

In Uncategorized on February 27, 2012 at 2:53 am

Research indicates that if you are a bilingual individual, the processes your brain uses to access language are most likely more dynamic than those of a monolingual individual. The reasoning is as follows:  when processing or producing language, a bilingual has access to two languages at once and therefore has to negotiate the conflict between them. This constant negotiation can lead to an increase in the density of grey and white matter in the brain[i]. This increased density adds to an individual’s store of “cognitive reserve”, the brain’s resilience or ability to function adequately after damage or degeneration. Although the constant linguistic conflict may lead to an increase in tip-of-tongue phenomenon among bilinguals[ii], or may cause bilingual children to make more mistakes naming pictures than monolingual children[iii], there are definite cognitive benefits to being bilingual.

In her research on the effects of bilingualism across the lifespan[iv], cognitive neuroscientist Ellen Bialystok explains that the mechanism known as “control of attention” (the ability to focus attention on a specific aspect of language even in the presence of misleading information) is more developed in bilingual children. Bilingual children exhibited an advantage over monolingual children when asked to perform a task requiring cognitive control of attention[v]. Moreover, this advantage was seen in adults aged 30 to 59 and 60 to 80. Although delay in response increased with age, it appeared that bilingual adults continued to have an advantage over monolingual adults, a finding that indicates that being bilingual ameliorates the effects of cognitive decline as a result of the normal ageing process.

In the same vein, in research published in 2007, Bialystok, Craik and Freedman[vi] argued that bilingualism falls under the category of “sustained complex mental activity” that may lead to increased cognitive reserve. As a result, older bilinguals susceptible to dementia may experience a benefit related to the age of onset of illness. They went on to find that bilingual patients with probable Alzheimer’s disease experienced, on average, a delay of 4.3 years for the onset of symptoms in comparison to monolinguals. They also found that bilingual patients suffering from other forms of dementia experienced on average a 3.5 year delay in onset. These findings remained significant even when taking into account other elements that may contribute to cognitive reserve, such as a patient’s level of education or type of occupation.

So, when you think about it, the bilingual benefit is not only confined to an ability to communicate effectively with more people or understand the cultural nuances of other nations. It extends itself to increased cognitive reserve across a lifespan, better cognitive control of attention as a child, ameliorated cognitive decline as an adult, and resilience against degenerative neuropathology in old age. The benefits may far outweigh the increase in tip of tongue phenomenon, the mistakes in naming pictures or the hard work it may take to master two different languages.

[i] Mechelli, A., Crinion, J. T., Noppeney, U., O’Doherty, J., Ashburner, J., Frackowiak, R. S., et al. (2004). Structural plasticity in the bilingual brain. Nature, 431, 757.

[ii] Gollan, T. H., & Brown, A. S. (2006). From tip-of-the-tongue (TOT) data to theoretical implications in two steps: When more TOTs means better retrieval. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 135, 462–483.

 [iii] Roberts, P. M., Garcia, L. J., Desrochers, A., & Hernandez, D. (2002). English performance of proficient bilingual adults on the Boston Naming Test. Aphasiology, 16, 635–645.

 [iv] Bialystok, E., Craik, F. and Luk, G. (2008). Cognitive control and lexical access in younger and older bilinguals. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 34, 859-873.

 [v]  Bialystok, E., Martin M. and Viswanathan, M. (2005). Bilingualism across the lifespan: The rise and fall of inhibitory control. International Journal of Bilingualism, 9, 103-119.

 [vi] Bialystok, E., Craik, F., and Freedman, M. (2007). Bilingualism as a protection against the onset of symptoms of dementia. Neuropsychologia, 45, 459-464.