This is the first in a multi-part series on bilingualism.
“You’re so lucky you speak so many languages!”
All of us here at VOVF Europe and VOVF USA are multilingual, so this is a phrase that we all hear fairly often. Many of you probably do, too. But how “lucky” are we exactly? What are the advantages of being bilingual? Does speaking many languages come exclusively with pros, or are there also cons?
Bilingualism is a growing phenomenon in an increasingly global community. It is estimated that over half (anywhere between 55% and 75%, depending on the source) of the world’s population speaks at least two languages. Even in the US, which is largely monolingual, it is thought that over 20% of the population speaks a second language.
However, bilingualism has not always been perceived as a positive attribute to be encouraged through lessons, travel and language immersion. Early research on bilingualism conducted prior to the 1960s even linked bilingualism to lower IQ scores and cognitive deficiencies. Although this has since been proved to be unfounded, more recent studies show bilinguals have weaker verbal skills in each language compared to monolingual speakers of each language. Bilinguals have demonstrated smaller vocabulary size, slower responses in comprehension and picture recognition, and lower verbal semantic fluency scores (naming as many words within a certain timeframe and in a certain category).
If that is the case, is it better to be monolingual?
Definitely not, as the advantages still largely outweigh the disadvantages. Assistant Professor Yang Hwajin is a cognitive and developmental psychologist from the Singapore Management University (SMU) School of Social Sciences who also happens to speak Korean and English. Yang’s study of bilingualism in children has yielded interesting results: bilingual infants from lower socioeconomic backgrounds demonstrated greater cognitive development than their monolingual counterparts. He believes that the will required to focus on the grammar of the language he is speaking has helped develop his ability to filter distractions and focus better.
Judith Kroll, a psychologist who studies bilingualism and its cognitive consequences at Pennsylvania State University, would seem to agree. Kroll says that a bilingual brain needs to make a conscious and active effort when switching languages, choosing words and selecting the correct grammar. She believes that this constant cognitive effort may be responsible for an observed improvement in executive function, or the ability to filter out unnecessary information and to make decisions. Indeed, numerous studies in the last ten years have shown that bilinguals outperform monolinguals in a range of cognitive and social tasks, from verbal and non-verbal tests to how well they can “read” other people. Executive control is central to academic achievement, which in turn is a significant predictor of long-term health and well-being.
Perhaps most exciting, however, are bilingualism’s reported health benefits, which include faster stroke recovery and delayed onset of dementia. Research shows lifelong bilinguals developed symptoms of cognitive decline 4.3 years later than monolinguals. It would seem that being bilingual has a “crossword puzzle effect,” helping us stay mentally nimble and thus protecting against dementia. In a world with a rapidly aging population, learning languages may just be the best medicine.
Ellen Bialystok, Fergus I.M. Craik and Gigi Luk, “Bilingualism: Consequences for Mind and Brain,” NCBI, April 2012: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3322418/
Yamini Chinnuswamy, “Bilingualism and the brain: How language shapes our ability to process information ,“ ScienceDaily, August 24, 2015: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/08/150824114907.htm
Lizzie Wade, “Being Bilingual Changes the Architecture of Your Brain,” Wired, February 15, 2016 : https://www.wired.com/2016/02/being-bilingual-changes-the-architecture-of-your-brain/
Gaia Vince, “Why being bilingual works wonders for your brain,” The Guardian, August 7, 2016: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/aug/07/being-bilingual-good-for-brain-mental-health
Maria Konnikova, The New Yorker, January 22, 2015 : http://www.newyorker.com/science/maria-konnikova/bilingual-advantage-aging-brain