THE BILINGUAL ADVANTAGE.

Having studied and to varying degrees learned a number of languages, I’m always interested in studies about multilingualism (I most recently blogged about it here); now Claudia Dreifus of the NY Times has an interview with cognitive neuroscientist Ellen Bialystok about “how bilingualism sharpens the mind”:

As we did our research, you could see there was a big difference in the way monolingual and bilingual children processed language. We found that if you gave 5- and 6-year-olds language problems to solve, monolingual and bilingual children knew, pretty much, the same amount of language.
But on one question, there was a difference. We asked all the children if a certain illogical sentence was grammatically correct: “Apples grow on noses.” The monolingual children couldn’t answer. They’d say, “That’s silly” and they’d stall. But the bilingual children would say, in their own words, “It’s silly, but it’s grammatically correct.” The bilinguals, we found, manifested a cognitive system with the ability to attend to important information and ignore the less important. …

If you have two languages and you use them regularly, the way the brain’s networks work is that every time you speak, both languages pop up and the executive control system has to sort through everything and attend to what’s relevant in the moment. Therefore the bilinguals use that system more, and it’s that regular use that makes that system more efficient. …
In our next studies, we looked at the medical records of 400 Alzheimer’s patients. On average, the bilinguals showed Alzheimer’s symptoms five or six years later than those who spoke only one language. This didn’t mean that the bilinguals didn’t have Alzheimer’s. It meant that as the disease took root in their brains, they were able to continue functioning at a higher level. They could cope with the disease for longer.

Fascinating stuff.

Comments

  1. I was wondering if you’d talk about this article, which is so much better than a similar recent one in the Guardian. Incidentally, every time I try to read a NY Times article nowadays it says I’ve read too many of them and now I’ve got to pay them money. Well, I’d rather die, frankly. But I don’t have to, because I’ve discovered that if I google the article’s title I can read the googled Times article without any problem. So haha to them.

  2. Toledo McPherson says:

    AJP, you can also use the ‘bookmarklet’ at the link below to get around the paywall. Works like a charm.
    http://euri.ca/2011/03/get-around-new-york-times-20-article-limit/

  3. I was disappointed that the article didn’t even ask about possible alternative explanations for the bilingual advantage in things like delaying Alzheimer’s. Most obviously, a selection effect: maybe people with better executive control systems are better at keeping up with two languages throughout life, not the other way around. Maybe people with better executive control systems are more likely to have the initiative to immigrate to another country where they have to learn a second language (and their bilingual children inherit their executive control systems).

  4. dearieme says:

    Is the result true independently of how closely related the languages are? That would be odd but not inconceivable. Is there a comparable result for children who speak what would be classified as two dialects of one language?

  5. Thanks for posting this. It makes me happy because my children are trilingual (NL/PL/EN) so hopefully they will get even more cognitive benefits.
    She only pointed out two main benefits of being bilingual but there is a really important third one. Subsequent language acquisition is much easier when you are multilingual. Monolingual English speakers tend to be at an enormous disadvantage when learning languages compared to other language speakers who tend to want to speak at least English.

  6. of course I happily shared it with everybody yesterday :) but in the depth of my statistician’s heart I fully expect the dataset to be to small for the conclusions to be truly significant.
    Still it’s friggin’ nice to have the Hallowed Science on the side of our Parental Idiosyncrasies LOL. I got friends who read copious amounts of parenting books just for that fleeting feeling that the Gurus actually side with them sometimes ;)

  7. Thank you Toledo – or may I call you McPherson? From the comments I see there are many ways of not paying, including removing the Times’s biscuits from my machine.

  8. Bill Walderman says:

    Don’t get your hopes up. According to the NYT article, the bilingual advantage only shows up in people who actively use both languages in their daily lives. So if you just studied French or Spanish in high school or college–even if you reached a high level of proficiency–you’re still doomed.

  9. There are many people who do something similar, though. You, Walderman: as a professional clarinetist I bet you use similar brain muscles when you sight read music. Actually many of us here are using two languages on a daily basis; some, more than two.

  10. Bill Walderman says:

    “You, Walderman: as a professional clarinetist I bet you use similar brain muscles when you sight read music. ”
    Amateur violinist. But it’s already too late for me.

  11. With Alzheimers, what’s cause and effect here seems questionable. Perhaps it is a mild congintive impairment which turns formerly actively bilingual people into minolingual or mostly monoligual.
    Anyway could’t resist an xkcd kink on the subject

  12. Amateur violin too; well, don’t give up, bilingual in clarinet and violin is even better.
    I recently found I can still drive on the left-hand side of the road. I tried in London after a 25- or 35-year lapse. I’m hoping if I practise both conventions regularly it will help with the Alzheimer’s. I’m fairly confident it will, I feel my brain flexing while I pick which direction to try first at the roundabouts.

  13. Following dearieme, this could be the first Properly Sciency[1] test for the language/dialect test: just check out executive control systems on a passing brainpr0n scan-o-matic and Bop is je oom.
    [1] Not involving a flot, at least. And everything is more Sciency with colour pictures; this is after all the cornerstone of Nature‘s notability criteria.

  14. Bill Walderman says:

    “I’m hoping if I practise both conventions regularly it will help with the Alzheimer’s. I’m fairly confident it will, I feel my brain flexing while I pick which direction to try first at the roundabouts.”
    If you really want to flex your brain, you could try driving on the left in Norway or on the right in Britain. That could completely forestall the onset of Alzheimer’s.

  15. Thanks for the tip, it’s quicker than learning a language, but we’re not all multitaskers. I can’t even play one instrument while I drive, let alone two.

  16. But on one question, there was a difference. We asked all the children if a certain illogical sentence was grammatically correct: “Apples grow on noses.” The monolingual children couldn’t answer. They’d say, “That’s silly” and they’d stall. But the bilingual children would say, in their own words, “It’s silly, but it’s grammatically correct.” The bilinguals, we found, manifested a cognitive system with the ability to attend to important information and ignore the less important.
    But what’s that actually saying? That being bilingual makes you spontaneously capable of Chomskian insight into the difference between grammatical and semantic correctness (“colourless green ideas … etc”)? Or could it just be that bilingual learners are more explicitly taught that distinction, because it’s necessary in a way that isn’t in monolingual education?

  17. Another cool bilingual-advantage tidbit which I just overheard during a lunch from my kid. It comes from the Neuroscience dept at his school. They have a special machine which transiently disrupts function of a targeted brain region. Supposedly if they target a well-known speech area, then their subjects remain fully capable of listening, but they begin to talk gibberish without even being aware about it. Bilingual subjects, however, maintain some ability to speak coherently even when their “standard” speech center is supressed.

  18. Bill Walderman says:

    Do they restore normal brain functioning after the experiment, or do the monolingual subjects remain permanently impaired?

  19. Dear Mr. or Ms. Cave Cave, if I may, you ought not be so proud of taking intellectual property from the internet–just because the technology permits you to do that. If and when we live in a world without newspapers and with only free bloggers of varying quality, you may be sorry that you weren’t willing to pay someone to do the hard work of providing information.
    Someone paid me to read up on bilingualism, to go to Washington, to stay in a hotel and to spend many hours transcribing Dr. Bialystok’s tape, not to mention edit it. You may think that any one of the 60,000 unpaid bloggers on the Huffington Post can do that just as well, but you’d be wrong.
    The world you might be encouraging will be no bargain. Think about it.
    Claudia Dreifus

  20. Thanks for dropping by, and I hasten to assure you that my wife and I subscribe and are glad to help keep the Times in business!

  21. J.W. Brewer says:

    I read Ms. Dreifus’ piece for free the old-fashioned way, by picking up a hard copy a fellow commuter had abandoned on the train. (In the U.S., at least, copyright holders are not allowed to demand licensing fees for the right to read a copy someone else has paid for and then discarded, although for all I know their lobbyists are working on it.) I was then baffled when myl’s blurb at LL commended the story for providing links to the underlying research papers, since I hadn’t seen anywhere to click.

  22. kerron19 says:

    According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, more than one in 5 school-aged children (21%) speak a language other than English at home. That number of bilingual speakers is projected to increase in the coming years.

  23. kerron19 says:

    Cognitive benefits: The bilingual people can have some specific advantages in thinking. They have two or more words for each idea and object. Hence, a bilingual person can develop a creative thinking and an ability to think more flexibly. The bilinguals are aware about which language should be spoken with which person in a particular situation. Therefore, they are more sensitive to the needs of the listener than the monolingual people. Being bilingual has a positive effect on intellectual growth. It enhances and enriches a person’s mental development. The latest research has proved that the bilinguals are better at IQ tests as compared to the monolinguals.
    [spam URL removed - LH]

  24. Bathrobe says:

    two or more words for each idea and object
    It might be more useful to say they have an awareness that words can divide the semantic spectrum up differently. That can lead to an awareness of what is marked and unmarked (i.e., what is taken as ‘normal’ or ‘standard’), how different things are taken for granted in different cultures, etc. These things can only come through bilingual experience. You can’t get them from dictionaries (or you can only get them from dictionaries if you know what to look for).

  25. Bathrobe says:

    Did I just reply to a spammer?

  26. Dear Ms Dreifus, I don’t believe for a minute your premise that without an internet paywall the NY Times will go out of business. The NY Times isn’t making people pay for its articles because the owners are worried whether they’ll be able pay the writers, so don’t try and make me feel guilty. If it were going out of business, the alternative to the NY Times’s business model isn’t sixty thousand unpaid bloggers at the Huffington Post, it’s the Guardian Unlimited network of websites. The Guardian quite rightly has a policy of no paywalls: the Guardian thinks paywalls at newspapers run counter to Tim Berners Lee’s premise of freedom of access to information. And companies like the Guardian and google who don’t charge for access are still doing quite nicely, thank you; greedy whingers like the NY Times (and, to a lesser extent, the OUP) are just wondering why they aren’t reaping the huge piles of money that they feel they ought to be entitled to – well, good luck to the buggers, but that’s not the Zeitgeist, thank God.
    Incidentally, I’m not only accessing their articles “just because the technology permits you to do that”. If you read the comments at McPherson’s link http://euri.ca/2011/03/get-around-new-york-times-20-article-limit/, you’ll see that in the opinion of the experts the NY Times has deliberately, no doubt for some underhand reason, made its paywall unusually “porous”.
    Jeremy
    PS I’m going to be away from my computer for a few days. If you reply to this don’t take my silence for lack of interest.

  27. Did I just reply to a spammer?
    Yes, but don’t worry, I removed their fangs. If you experience any unusual throbbing in the next day or two, though, see an internet doctor.
    Dear Ms Dreifus, I don’t believe for a minute your premise that without an internet paywall the NY Times will go out of business.
    But the Times believes it, which is the important point. They’ve tried a paywall before and failed, and this will probably fail too, but it’s not Ms. Dreifus’s fault.
    *tries manfully to resist making Dreyfus Case pun*

  28. Regarding the Dreyfus Case, the actress who played Elaine on Seinfeld, Julia Scarlett Elizabeth Louis-Dreyfus, is a relative. She’s also in line to a pretty good share of a billion dollars or so.

  29. But the Times believes it … but it’s not Ms. Dreifus’s fault.
    It’s not my fault either, but she says I’ll be sorry. In fact I won’t, I’ll still have the Guardian. I only read bits of the NY Times occasionally, and good though it is in some places, particularly the Science Times.

  30. J.W. Brewer says:

    If the Hat household keeps on sending money to the NYT despite their dumping of On Language and Schott’s Vocab (assuming that parting of the ways is properly characterized that way), how will they ever be incentivized to better behavior?

  31. I once had Julia Louise-Dreyfus’s half-sister as a student in a multivariable calculus class.

  32. If the Hat household keeps on sending money to the NYT despite their dumping of On Language and Schott’s Vocab (assuming that parting of the ways is properly characterized that way), how will they ever be incentivized to better behavior?
    I know, I know. I’m torn.

  33. But it’s so nice having the Sunday paper right there on our doorstep in time for breakfast!

  34. NYTclean is a cool cheat but so far I’ve discovered that I really *can* put my NYT appetite on a diet. So many of their stories are not sufficiently unique or important, a 20 per month limit works for me. They need to insitute a new policy of keeping the best pieces for the ends of the months LOL (when casual readers like myself run out of their e-rationing cards).

Speak Your Mind

*