A cognitive neuroscientist, Dr. Ellen Bialystok, 62, has spent almost 40 years learning about how bilingualism sharpens the mind. Her good news: Among other benefits, the regular use of two languages appears to delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease symptoms.
Bialystok is a distinguished research professor of psychology at York University (Toronto, Canada) and received a $100,000 Killam Prize last year for her contributions to social science.
Here are some highlights of the interview, but read the complete story at the link above to understand how technology has helped the professor in her research.
Q. How does this work — do you understand it?
A. Yes. There’s a system in your brain, the executive control system. It’s a general manager. Its job is to keep you focused on what is relevant, while ignoring distractions. It’s what makes it possible for you to hold two different things in your mind at one time and switch between them.
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.
According to her research, using two languages all the time also helps ward off Alzheimer's disease.
Is a smattering of high school French enough? No, says Bialystok. You need to use "both languages all the time. You won’t get the bilingual benefit from occasional use."
Biligualism also helps with mutitasking. Bialystock's team wondered, “Are bilinguals better at multitasking?”
They put monolinguals and bilinguals into a driving simulator and gave them - through headphones - extra tasks to do As tasks were added, everyone's driving got worse. But the bilinguals did better than the others as they could concentrate on a problem. However, they are not advising that bilinguals text while they drive.
For those of a technical frame of mind, do read the section on new neuroimaging technologies that helped in this research. In the old days, scientists could only see the parts of the brain used in specific tasks. New technology means they can see how the different parts work together in tasks.
Bilinguals seem to solve problems faster than monolinguals. It seems the bilinguals are using a different kind of network to solve those problems. Says Bialystok, "Their whole brain appears to rewire because of bilingualism."
In the US - until about the 1960s - parents were advised not to speak their native languages to their children as it could confuse them. That has changed and bilingualism is no longer considered a negative point.
And what about today's immigrants?
Bialystok says people ask her about teaching languages to their children. She answers, "You’re sitting on a potential gift."
Read the complete story at the link above.
[NOTE: For another article just found for for those interested in more on bilingualism, here's a link to an article by a University of Kansas researcher, titled "Is being bilingual a no-brainer?"]
Are you bilingual? What languages do you speak? Has it helped you? Or not? We are really interested in hearing from readers, so please post your comments below.