BLOOMING GLEN, Pennsylvania — In many parts of the world, people must become bilingual, or multilingual, to get by. They need one language for home, and at least one larger language to survive in the professional world. While many Americans shy away from learning new tongues, science is showing that those in the developing world who must learn multiple languages are actually at an advantage. Language, particularly English, translates to power in an increasingly globalized world. Those who master multiple languages have a leg up on those who do not.
In bilinguals, both languages are constantly active. This gives the brain a constant workout trying to suppress one language while speaking in another. Bilinguals showcase the fruits of these mental aerobics with faster problem solving, planning and focus. They learn new words more quickly, and they adapt to unforeseen circumstances faster. They are also better at remembering facts when switching between objects of their attention. For example, paying attention to the road while also remembering how to get where they are going.
A 2004 study had preschoolers sort computerized blue circles and red squares into bins marked with blue squares and red circles. First, they needed to sort by color, but then they need to sort by shape, which proved much more challenging. Bilingual children were able to perform the task at faster rates.
The reason they have these added mental abilities is possibly because bilinguals are better able to monitor their environment. They can process what is important versus what is not more quickly, and they can suppress the information that is not relevant.
The benefits of bilingualism extend into old age. Studies have shown that bilinguals are less susceptible to dementia. While bilingualism does not stop the disease, it is shown to decrease Alzheimer’s symptoms.
One study tested the aptitudes of 11 year olds, and then retested the same children in their early 70s. The bilinguals showed higher than expected levels of intelligence based on their baseline scores when compared to their monolingual counterparts.
The more extensive the knowledge of both languages, the greater the effect on their intelligence.
Bilinguals think more logically than people with only one language. Studies have shown that people make different decisions in their native tongues than a second language—typically less practical ones. Possibly, the difference lies in the use of native tongues in a home environment, which gives them a faster, unconscious, emotional link to the speaker. Emotionally charged words do have a stronger impact when used in a native language. This is in contrast to a second language, which is often used in a professional environment, leading to systematic, analytical thinking.
Choices are more deliberate in a second language.
Some bilinguals also report a personality change between their two languages. This may also be a factor of the environment pulling certain aspects of their personalities out in one language over another. The personality changes could contribute to the more rational decisions.
Another aspect of smarter thinking comes with bilinguals’ ability to manipulate their own biases. Depending on which language a person uses, they could feel more or less positive or negative about the subject.
A test of Arab Israelis, bilingual in Arabic and Hebrew, tested the subjects’ biases in both languages. The participants were tested using the Implicit Association Test, which compares peoples’ responses to good or bad words, versus another stimulus—in this case a Hebrew or Arabic name. When the participants took the test in Arabic, they were far more likely to associate a Hebrew name as bad. When they took it in Hebrew, they were less biased.
Educating people in multiple languages could give them a head start economically, since many business transactions take place in a second language, often English. But it also has the added effect of boosting the brain power of the speaker. Teaching everyone a second language, particularly in their early youth, could increase efficiency and understanding in the world.
Many schools educate in multiple languages. Eritrean schools use Tigringna, Arabic and English; these languages all use different scripts, and children must learn all three. Learning basic concepts of literacy and numeracy are easily transferred from one language to another, so this schooling is not detrimental to the child’s learning. The main issue is that it is much easier to learn these concepts in a native tongue. Schools that begin teaching in the native language can build cognitive skills that can be passed on to multiple languages.
Science has found numerous advantages to knowing more than one language. Countries that encourage and nurture the growth of multiple languages in their citizens could boost their economies and the welfare of their people.
– Monica Roth