By Davey Young at A.C.E.–In the wake of Wednesday’s post, I got to thinking about the benefits not of simply studying another language, but of being bilingual. (I use the phrase “studying another language” here to preclude fluency, and “bilingual” to naturally include it.) So I did a little poking around on the ole’ internet and came to following conclusion: being bilingual has numerous benefits to both acuity and mental health. For the time being I will gloss over the socio-cultural benefits, which are various and generally accepted (i.e. increased job opportunities, ease in travel, etc) and instead focus on those that have been more empirically determined. Finally, I operate here under the definition of a bilingual person as someone who is raised speaking two languages with relatively equal fluency, as it is generally accepted that a person cannot achieve native fluency in a foreign language if they begin learning it after the critical age has passed.
1. Exposure to two languages from birth leads to cognitive command earlier than monolingual counterparts: a study from last year demonstrated that 7-month-old infants had domain-general command over certain cognitive functions that their monolingual counterparts did not. We use different areas of our brain to process different types of input, but it takes our brains time to properly align these areas with general types of input. This is why we wait for baby’s first words instead of expecting baby to speak straight out of the womb. This study shows that bilinguals actually develop these command abilities faster than monolinguals.
2. Bilinguals have greater cognitive prowess than their monolingual counterparts: a very recent study suggests that bilinguals employ both languages at every level of cognitive processing. That is to say, if a particular problem is too hard to puzzle out in one language, then a bilingual person has the option of solving it in the other. Inherent differences in the language demand different cognitive faculties, and these variations better equip the brain to solve a wider array of problem sets.
3. Bilinguals will have an easier time learning a third language than a monolingual will have learning a second: this 2009 study demonstrates a natural consequence of bilinguals enhanced processing skills. To put it simply, bilinguals are so used to thinking and speaking in more than one language, that adding another one to the mix comes more naturally. We have all heard anecdotes about citizens from certain countries being able to speak four of five languages with relative ease. Such stories can be chalked up to the daily exposure to at least two languages. (I’m thinking here of the Benelux countries in particular, where English is a supplement to the French/Danish/German etc.)
4. Bilinguals are more creative than their monolingual counterparts: two experts in the field of foreign language study claim that bilinguals, owing to the increase in cognitive prowess, have enhanced creative faculties. Such a claim makes sense when one considers the beauty of good poetry. Indeed, what sounds beautiful in one language may not translate as beautifully into another, but the bilingual can overcome this problem by appreciating two disparate linguistic aesthetics and moving freely between them.
5. Bilingualism delays the onset of dementia: an exhaustive 2007 study provides strong evidence that proficiency in more than one language maintains mental acumen for longer. Again, this claim is a natural consequence of increased cognitive power. Does your family have a history of Alzheimer’s? Lay off the fast food, stay off the football field, and study a language instead.
If you are a monolingual like me, don’t be discouraged by this information. Being monolingual doesn’t mean you are destined to demented vacuity. Studying another language after the critical period has lapsed has its benefits as well. If you need a little boost in this regard, I suggest you scroll down to Wednesday’s post. When you’re done, dust off that old high school Spanish text book. It’s for your own good.