another benefit of being bilingual

Photo Illustration by Newsweek (source photo); W. Pollard / Ojo Images-Getty Images

There’s a piece in Newsweek currently on findings concerning cognitive benefits of bilingualism.

(Click the image at left for the article on Yes, I know the Arabic is backwards. It should be right-to-left — مرحبا , I think .)

The article reports that

According to several different studies, command of two or more languages bolsters the ability to focus in the face of distraction, decide between competing alternatives, and disregard irrelevant information. These essential skills are grouped together, known in brain terms as “executive function.”

Findings and interpretations by Ellen Bialystok, a professor at York University in Toronto, and by Tamar Gollan at UCSD are highlighted.

This is not about just having studied another language some, but about being actually bilingual, to the extent of actively using both languages on a regular basis, and having the cognitive burden of being able to say things in either language, and therefore needing to decide regularly which way to speak, or how to write. This actually creates a disadvantage for bilinguals trying to perform on standardized tests. (Note the original photograph, at right, used in an article on child stress.)

I’ve checked some of those researchers’ scientific journal articles, and the work is impressive. Still, I would suggest that there is more to this than simply matters of cognitive information processing — but I can’t elaborate on that right now.

The Newsweek article by Casey Schwartz avoids a couple of pet peeves that I have come to expect in articles on topics like this: I hate it when arguments for art education suggest that the value of art is in how it improves math scores, or when it is suggested that music is worthwhile because it improves brain performance, for example — or when people argue that it’s a good thing for children to learn Latin because it’s like exercising the muscles of the brain.

I have heard Schwartz use the “exercise” analogy, but in this case there is something to it. And she doesn’t reduce the value of language ability to just some general improvement of brain functioning. As she is clear to recognize:

Some of the most valuable mental perks of bilingualism can’t be measured at all, of course. To speak more than one language is to inherit a global consciousness that opens the mind to more than one culture or way of life.

Shortlink for this article:


One Comment

  1. Posted December 14, 2011 at 5:09 am | Permalink

    Wow! Such an informative article! I never knew such facts on being bi-lingual! thanks for sharing! I know three languages ;)

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