What are the benefits of bilingualism?

bilingualism

It was a headline that immediately grabbed my attention: A Bilingual Brain is More Developed: Oui or No?. My interest went beyond my passion for everything language-related; as someone who’s bilingual and who has bilingual friends and loved ones, I guess you could say I took it personally. But as I read the article, I felt increasingly disappointed.  For one thing, facts and statistics were usually listed without a source or link.  And I quickly found author Preetam Kaushik’s argument kind of weak. Ultimately, it had to do with the article’s vagueness.  For one thing, Kaushik neglects to define what he means by “bilingual”.  He begins by evoking people who are born and raised in bilingual families and cultures, or who learn a second language early in life, and then, as the article goes on, he seems to include anyone who’s learned to speak another language fluently.  But those aren’t the same kinds of bilingualism. For example, I started learning French at around 12 years old.  I may understand and be able to communicate without too much trouble in my second language, but I’ll never know it as intimately as I do my native language, nor am I likely to speak it without my American accent getting in the way.  On the other hand, my son has been bilingual since birth – or even before, according to scientific research. Would the brains of two adults with these different types of bilingualism show the same level of development? Another thing Kaushik leaves unclear is, what exactly is meant by “developed”?  He seems to define it in the article’s first paragraph, but never particularly goes into detail about certain areas where, he claims, bilinguals have the edge.

So what, exactly, does bilingualism do to the brain?  After some research, I discovered that it alters mental activity.  Psychologist Ellen Bialystock describes bilingualism as “re-wiring” the brain.  This article by The New York Times’ Yudhijit Bhattacharjee goes more in-depth, explaining that bilingual people have been shown to have both languages “running” at the same time.  Their brains learn to tune out the language not being used, and this, apparently, helps make them better at decision-making, dealing with conflicting information, and even observing their environment.  A bilingual brain also has more gray matter, and, Bhattacharjee explains, the fact that it’s got two languages operating at once also means that it’s constantly getting a good workout.  Another benefit of bilingualism that Kaushik references in his article, and that these sources confirm, is that recent studies have shown that bilingual brains tend to be more resistant to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.  Intriguingly, Bialystock’s found that while brain scans of bilingual Alzheimer’s patients seem to show more deterioration than the brains of speakers of one language, bilingual people seem to suffer symptoms significantly less, compared to monolinguals with a similar level of the disease.

As for what’s meant by “bilingualism”, the sources I checked out, as well as the studies, books, and experts they referenced, all seem to agree that while the ideal situation is for someone to be born bilingual, the brain can be “re-wired” and experience these benefits — to some degree — at any age, although the impact is likely to be strongest if the bilingualism starts early. Having resolved all that, I guess there is at least one thing I agree with Kaushik on: becoming fluent in another language can be beneficial in a myriad of ways, so why not start – or continue – learning a second language today?

Alysa Salzberg

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