Bilingualism good for the brain, researchers say
By Amina Khan, Los Angeles Times
Does being bilingual give young children a mental edge, or does it delay their learning?
It depends on who you ask.
Bilingual education is regarded by some in education policy circles as little more than a half-baked technique of teaching students whose native language is not English. Though it takes many forms, bilingual education programs usually involve teaching students in both their native languages and in English. How much each language is used, and in which academic contexts, varies by program.
But neuroscience researchers are increasingly coming to a consensus that bilingualism has many positive consequences for the brain. Several such researchers traveled to this month’s annual meeting of the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C., to present their findings. Among them:
• Bilingual children are more effective at multi-tasking.
• Adults who speak more than one language do a better job prioritizing information in potentially confusing situations.
• Being bilingual helps ward off early symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease in the elderly.
These benefits come from having a brain that’s constantly juggling two — or even more — languages, said Ellen Bialystok, a psychology professor at York University in Toronto, who spoke at the AAAS annual meeting. For instance, a person who speaks both Hindi and Tamil can’t turn Tamil off even if he’s speaking to only Hindi users, because the brain is constantly deciding which language is most appropriate for a given situation.
This constant back-and-forth between two linguistic systems means frequent exercise for the brain’s so-called executive control functions, located mainly in the prefrontal cortex. This is the part of the brain tasked with focusing one’s attention, ignoring distractions, holding multiple pieces of information in mind when trying to solve a problem, and then flipping back and forth between them.
“If you walk into a room, there’s a million things that could attract your attention,” Bialystok said. “How is it we manage to focus at all? How does our mind pay attention to what we need to pay attention to without getting distracted?”