Today more than ever, scientists devote their time and resources to researching the benefits and effects of bilingualism. Most of us speak two or more languages but do not realise how this affects our daily life. Recently, however, scientists have made some groundbreaking discoveries with regards to how the brain manages bilingualism and how this affects learning and memory throughout our lives. It has been discovered that different languages activate the brain in different ways, and it has been discovered that measurable neurologic benefits emerge from bilingualism. This month’s blog post will present some of these discoveries and provide you with an overview of the wonders and benefits of the bilingual brain.
The benefits of bilingualism
At first glance, it may seem like a disadvantage that bilinguals have to be able to cope with two active languages. They can obstruct and interfere with each other’s processes in the brain. This notion is reasonable, as there is sizable evidence that both languages activate in the brain, even when only one is used. However, bilingualism is actually a blessing in disguise, as the obstruction and interference constantly challenges the brain and thereby becomes a form of unintentional brain training. In addition to this, it is believed that the process of having to switch between different languages results in a generally heightened sense of perception. This is because, as Albert Costa of the University of Pompeu Fabra in Spain told the New York Times in a recent article, “it [bilingualism, ed.] requires keeping track of changes around you in the same way that we monitor our surroundings when driving”.
The inadvertent brain training that bilingualism provides is evident in a 2004 study by researchers Michelle M. Martin-Rhee and Ellen Bialystok, where bilingual and monolingual children were asked to sort red squares and blue circles in a computer program. First, the children were asked to put the blue circles in a digital bucket marked with a blue square and the red squares in a digital bucket marked with a red circle. This sorting according to colour was relatively easy for both groups of children. The children were then asked to sort the squares and circles by shape, which meant contradictorily putting the red squares in the bucket marked with a blue square and vice versa. The bilingual children were much quicker at performing this task.
The evidence from a number of such studies suggests that bilingualism improves the brain’s executive functions — the brains “control center” that handles the processes that we use for planning (which was the topic of our last blog post), solving problems and critical thinking. These processes include staying focused by ignoring distractions, switching attention from one thing to another and holding information in mind — like remembering which route to take when driving to a new destination.
The benefits of bilingualism are not just useful in the early stages of life. Recent research by Dr. Tamar Gollan of the University of California suggests that elderly with a high proficiency in multiple languages were more resistant to neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease.
Individual languages utilize different areas of the brain
You may now be wondering how it is possible that bilingualism has such an effect on a wide area of the brain. Shouldn’t it just benefit your language ability?
Languages obviously differentiate on basic vocabulary and often on aspects such as grammar, syntax, tone etc. More importantly to our case however, it was proven in recent research conducted between 2004 and 2011 that languages also differentiate neurologically in the sense that they activate and utilize the brain’s functions differently.
In a study from 2004, native speakers of Chinese underwent brain scans while recognizing words from the Chinese vocabulary. The researchers knew from other studies that in the English language, verbs are stored specifically in the frontal region of the brain, while nouns are stored further back in the brain. The study showed that the same did not apply for the Chinese language, where rules for conjugation and tone are very different from those of the English language. Instead of activating very specific areas of the brain for each class of word, Chinese words activated broadly across both sides of the brain when recognized.
In a second study from 2008, the researchers confirmed that bilinguals, who learned both Chinese and English early, i.e. before the age of three, did indeed utilize their brain differently depending on which language was being used. To investigate if the same applied to bilinguals who learned their second language later in life, a third study was conducted in 2011, in which the test subjects all were native Chinese speakers who had acquired English as their second language after the age of twelve. The study found that Chinese words activated broadly across the whole of the brain, thus replicating the results from earlier studies. Surprisingly, however, in this study the English words activated broadly as well. The study indicated that the age at which a new language is learned is of great importance for how the brain stores that language. If, for example, the brain learns English at an early age, then it will attempt to process all other languages in the same neurological manner, although this may not always be necessary or indeed optimal.
Learning depends on language
Not only do languages activate different parts of the brain, they also trigger different memories. In a study from 2007, two researchers discovered that bilinguals answered questions differently depending on the language in which the question was asked. The study tested a group of English-Mandarin bilinguals who were asked a series of multivalent questions, i.e. questions with several possible answers.
The study found that when the participants were asked a specific question, such as “name a statue of someone standing with a raised arm while looking into the distance”, they were most likely to name the Statue of Liberty when asked in English and the Statue of Mao when asked in Mandarin. In the same manner, the participants were asked to “name four tourist attractions” and were more susceptible to name American tourist attractions such as the Grand Canyon, Lincoln Memorial etc. when asked in English. When asked in Mandarin, the participants were more likely to list Chinese tourist attractions, such as the Great Wall of China or the Terra-Cotta Army.
These findings indicate that knowledge is stored in the brain based partly on the language in which the knowledge was originally learned, and that the recall process tends to depend on language as well.
What you can do
The benefits of bilingualism are clear examples of why it is so important to keep being curious and to keep learning new things. Learning has a fundamental effect on your brain and subsequent quality of life, even when accumulated at a later stage in life. It can delay neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, and it can improve your perception of the world. We at Brain+ urge you to stay adventurous and to further explore any subject that you may find interesting, thereby getting the most out of life.