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Bilingual is good for the brain

Posted by on Feb. 20, 2011 at 9:11 PM
  • 15 Replies

 Spin-off from the post about teaching a second languge in elementary school

 

http://pagingdrgupta.blogs.cnn.com/2011/02/18/foreign-language-learning-good-for-your-brain/?hpt=Sbin

If you had any doubts about exposing your child - or yourself - to a foreign language, there's more evidence than ever that being bilingual has enormous benefits for your brain.

Scientists presented their research supporting this idea Friday at the American Association for the Advancement of Science  annual meeting in Washington, D.C.

As the human body begins its natural decline in old age, bilinguals seem to maintain better cognitive function, said Ellen Bialystok of York University in Toronto, Ontario. This is the case even for people with dementia. Bialystok and colleagues have studied many Alzheimer's patients, both monolinguals and bilinguals. They found that bilinguals were on average four to five years older than monolinguals at comparable points of neurological impairment.

Once Alzheimer's disease begins to compromise the brain, it appears that bilinguals can continue to function even though there’s damaged tissue, she said.

So what's going on? One theory is that language learning is an example of "cognitive reserve." It something that keeps the mind active in the same way as puzzles and games do, and works toward compensating for the build-up of dementia-causing pathology in the brain, Bialystok said.

In terms of starting language learning in middle or old age, the likelihood of becoming truly fluent in a new tongue is low, but it seems that every little bit helps in preventing cognitive decline, she said. And proficiency may be more important than age of acquisition, said Judith Kroll, researcher at Pennsylvania State University, before the conference.

Bilinguals are also better than monolinguals at multitasking, Kroll said. Juggling their languages helps bilinguals ignore irrelevant information and prioritize tasks better than those who only can only speak on tongue, she has found in her research. That makes sense considering that when a bilingual person speaks one language, the other language is still potentially active. That means that speakers of two languages are constantly inhibiting one language in favor of another, which perhaps enhances their overall attentional skills.

Why is it so hard for adults to learn a new language, compared with kids? The answer might not lie entirely in the brain. The social, educational, and other circumstantial conditions are different when an adult gets exposure to language, Bialystok said. As a child, learning a language is pretty much all you do. Adults can't devote as much time or attention to the experience of picking up a new tongue.

"It’s a change we can deal with as adults if there’s sufficient time and opportunity," she said.

Are there any downsides to being bilingual? Babies exposed to two languages throughout pregnancy, or who hear two languages in their first days of life, don’t confuse their languages, said Janet Weker of the University of California, Santa Barbara. The scientific evidence suggests bilingual and monolingual kids have similar language development milestones; it appears that children learning two languages do not experience delays in this regard generally.

There is, however, some research suggesting that the competition that’s produced by this mental juggling may introduce a delay in processing. But it’s so small that it’s not something that would be noticeable consciously, Kroll said. It appears that the benefits of being bilingual outweigh the costs

Auroragold


"In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends." Martin Luther King, Jr.

by on Feb. 20, 2011 at 9:11 PM
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Replies (1-10):
LisaLulu
by on Feb. 20, 2011 at 9:34 PM

 As you may know, my boys are in francophone school and they are doing awesome. I took both boys to the nearest big city last summer to the zoo, and we were walking behind another couple for most of our visit. The other couple were french-speaking, and I speak english to my boys (their father speaks french to them). At one point, we were looking for the lions and Samuel and I were talking, trying to figure out in which direction they were, and we saw the french couple coming towards us down the path. Samuel ran up to them and asked them, en francais, where the lions were. They did a double-take, laughed and responded to him in french, he turned to me and told me in english. And last Easter, we had dinner with both sets of grandparents - my folks only speak english, and DH's only speak french. Samuel acted as the interpreter for the grandmamas - they were so thrilled with him and it gives me a huge burst of pride. I know from experience that trying to learn a second language as an adult is painful - and I certainly do not feel that my brain has expanded in any way. I still get un mal au tete when I try to keep up with DH's family... I will say that bilingualism is relevant for our family situation and we have a lot of opportunities in Canada, both educationally and practically, to acquire french. Are there many opportunities in the U.S. educational system to be immersed in a second language?

matthewscandi
by on Feb. 20, 2011 at 9:38 PM

Our public schools have bilingual classes in the elementary public school. My daughter is in K now and she will continue in bilingual classes until she is in 4th grade where in theory she should be fluent in spanish and will have the oppurtunity to learn another language in middle (5th-8th) and high school. We live in TX.

tristansmom74
by on Feb. 20, 2011 at 9:40 PM

 Oh yeah, especially where I am.  90% of my sons school is Hispanic and doesn't speak English at all.  I would love to learn I just need the time to be able to concentrate.

Quoting LisaLulu:

 As you may know, my boys are in francophone school and they are doing awesome. I took both boys to the nearest big city last summer to the zoo, and we were walking behind another couple for most of our visit. The other couple were french-speaking, and I speak english to my boys (their father speaks french to them). At one point, we were looking for the lions and Samuel and I were talking, trying to figure out in which direction they were, and we saw the french couple coming towards us down the path. Samuel ran up to them and asked them, en francais, where the lions were. They did a double-take, laughed and responded to him in french, he turned to me and told me in english. And last Easter, we had dinner with both sets of grandparents - my folks only speak english, and DH's only speak french. Samuel acted as the interpreter for the grandmamas - they were so thrilled with him and it gives me a huge burst of pride. I know from experience that trying to learn a second language as an adult is painful - and I certainly do not feel that my brain has expanded in any way. I still get un mal au tete when I try to keep up with DH's family... I will say that bilingualism is relevant for our family situation and we have a lot of opportunities in Canada, both educationally and practically, to acquire french. Are there many opportunities in the U.S. educational system to be immersed in a second language?

 

Miranda1127
by on Feb. 20, 2011 at 9:43 PM

 good to know

Barabell
by Barbara on Feb. 20, 2011 at 9:47 PM

Yup, this is good to know.  My son goes to a language immersion school, and the typical reaction when people first find out is either the person talking about a study similar to this or asking me why I would do that to my child because isn't it more important for him to know English first...LOL

Miranda1127
by on Feb. 20, 2011 at 9:54 PM

 lol, it's amazing how clueless some people can be. I can't even imagine thinking a second (+) language would be harmful for anyone. My kids only speak one language fluently (they both have a working knowledge of spanish thanks to family, but not fluent), but they are also fluent in American sign. The more they can communicate the better off they will be in the end...imo anyway.

Quoting Barabell:

Yup, this is good to know.  My son goes to a language immersion school, and the typical reaction when people first find out is either the person talking about a study similar to this or asking me why I would do that to my child because isn't it more important for him to know English first...LOL

 

Barabell
by Barbara on Feb. 20, 2011 at 10:05 PM

It happens a lot.  The language immersion model is actually fairly common in the metro area where I live (most school districts have one, and there are a couple charter schools that offer it), and so sometimes I'll even hear offhanded negative comments where they're talking about a family member that decided to send a child to an immersion school.  At first I would think, hey, they know I send my child to an immersion school too, should I be offended?  But I quickly remind myself that saying something wouldn't change their mind any more than their family member might have told them already.

My son is in 5th grade now, and so having people comment on it (positive or negative) doesn't really bother me anymore.  I just let typically don't react unless they ask specific questions about his school's educational model because we've been extremely happy with his education and that's all that matters to us.

Quoting Miranda1127:

 lol, it's amazing how clueless some people can be. I can't even imagine thinking a second (+) language would be harmful for anyone. My kids only speak one language fluently (they both have a working knowledge of spanish thanks to family, but not fluent), but they are also fluent in American sign. The more they can communicate the better off they will be in the end...imo anyway.

Quoting Barabell:

Yup, this is good to know.  My son goes to a language immersion school, and the typical reaction when people first find out is either the person talking about a study similar to this or asking me why I would do that to my child because isn't it more important for him to know English first...LOL

 



Barabell
by Barbara on Feb. 20, 2011 at 10:11 PM

I grew up in Phoenix, and I had never even heard of the immersion model until I moved to the Twin Cities.  In my son's school district, they have a dual-immersion school, and it would make perfect sense for places with high Spanish-speaking populations to adapt the same model.  That particular elementary school mixes native English speakers and native Spanish speakers in the same classroom with a bilingual teacher, and then the teacher teaches in both languages.  I love the idea that the kids will be able to interact with each other during recess and outside of school since they are learning each other's languages.  I really wish they had offered this when I went to school in Phoenix because I don't know Spanish as an adult and it would have been so easy to learn that way.  Plus, I wonder how much the schools would save by having dual-language classrooms instead ESL classrooms?

Quoting tristansmom74:

 Oh yeah, especially where I am.  90% of my sons school is Hispanic and doesn't speak English at all.  I would love to learn I just need the time to be able to concentrate.

 



bupkie
by on Feb. 20, 2011 at 11:18 PM

My gram just turned 99 this week, and she keeps mentally active as much as possible.  She loves puzzles and brain teasers, word games, etc.  But, she also decided to learn different languages, for the fun of it.   She even got herself a Computer in her mid Eighties!!!   As her eye-sight deteriorated, she used language recognition software - on the computer to continue learning different languages....     

So, I absolutely believe that language can indeed keep the mind sharp - when practiced and used, or studied on a continual basis.  

My other grandma, Nana, spoke both Italian as well as English - but was not educated past the eight grade.  (As she was needed at home to help the family work.)   However, for her, dementia began settling in for her in her 70's, and she passed last year in her 90's.    (She did not have much opportunity to speak much Italian beyond her 60's as most family members who spoke full Italian have passed.)    


arthistmom
by Bronze Member on Feb. 21, 2011 at 1:34 AM
The book called The Bilingual Edge by K. King and A. Mackey was suggested reading for parents who were thinking about enrolling their children in one of language immersion programs at the school our son now attends. It gathers together all the research on bilingualism and its advantages, which helped to convince my husband of the wisdom of giving our son that kind of educational opportunity. My in-laws are still somewhat wary about the whole thing (they worry that our son won't learn to read in English) but I think they're slowly warming up to the idea.
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