Bilinguism

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Is bilingualism good for the brain?

Both languages of the bilingual have an influence on the function of the other, and also on the cognitive function outside the language. In the past the view was that being bilingual detracted from ones abilities; that they would have stunted vocabularies and cognitive abilities, whereas since Peal and Lambert published a study in 1962, it is now believed that it adds to the individuals abilities.

A bilingual is an individual that is exposed to two languages simultaneously from a young age; however this definition varies depending on the studies.

The benefits of being able to speak two languages are more than simply being able to speak two languages. It requires the child to think in different and complicated ways, due to the differences in the rules and structures. It gives the child a greater awareness of the language and metalinguistic awareness (language and its relationship to culture and society.)

Ellen Bialystok, University of Toronto, argues that this metalinguistic awareness also increases the bilingual’s control of linguistic processes, such as detecting grammar or syntactic errors. She makes the distinction between two types of processing that aid children in language development, analysis: the ability to represent and understand abstract information, and control: the ability to selectively attend to the specific aspects of structures whilst ignoring irrelevant information. It is the aspect of control that bilinguals have the advantage over their monolingual peers when it comes to cognitive features.

Ellen Bialystok also argued that bilinguals have an advantage of better control of attention and better processing and functioning abilities in cognitive tasks. They also have a greater ability to attend or inhibit irrelevant information. Due to these benefits, bilingualism has been linked to slowing age related cognitive decline, as it could provide the cognitive reserve that delays the onset of signs of dementia.

Ellen Bialystok ‘the fast majority of cognitive differences were advantages to the bilingual child.’ She tested their linguistic knowledge, organisation of cognitive processes and functional structure of the brain. She argues that bilinguals are different from monolinguals in the way they acquire language.

She also found out that being bilingual delays the onset of Alzheimer’s by around four years. ‘Switching between languages seems to stimulate the brain so it builds up a cognitive reserve. Therefore bilinguals are better able to cope with Alzheimer’s, however it doesn’t prevent it. Older bilinguals maintain their mental skills as the brain deteriorates.

Theresa Bajo, from the University of Granada, said that both the languages are active when the bilingual is preparing to speak, therefore there is constantly a linguistic conflict going on, which strengthens their executive control functions as they learn to suppress the language.

This theory was proven in 2012 by Hoshino and Thierry, as they conducted a study where participants were shown word pairs in L2 that sometimes contained words that were cognates to L1 words. Participants had to judge whether the words in the pairs were related. Electrophysiological results revealed that semantic priming occurred when the words in the pairs were related to each other, whether the meaning was interpreted as L1 or L2.

Executive functions are cognitive processes like problem solving, mental flexibility and task switching. Bilinguals have been shown, over a number of tasks, to have better executive functions. They are better able to inhibit irrelevant information, as they are used to having two languages competing in their brain, and having to select the most appropriate words. Therefore they also have better control over what they select.

Bilingualism enhances the individual’s mental flexibility and their ability to solve problems, in ways that monolingual contemporaries do not appear to exhibit....
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