The English Learners' Blog

A blog for English learners and their teachers everywhere, initiated in 2010 with the contribution of students from the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland. More about me on the On-line Profile below. Welcome!

Recommended Brain Workout: Flex Your Multilingual “Muscles”

0:06
¿Hablas español? Parlez-vous français? 你会说中文吗?
0:12
If you answered, “sí,” “oui,” or “会” and you’re watching this in English,
0:18
chances are you belong to the world’s bilingual and multilingual majority.
0:23
And besides having an easier time traveling
0:25
or watching movies without subtitles,
0:27
knowing two or more languages means that your brain
0:29
may actually look and work differently than those of your monolingual friends.
0:34
So what does it really mean to know a language?
0:38
Language ability is typically measured in two active parts, speaking and writing,
0:43
and two passive parts, listening and reading.
0:46
While a balanced bilingual has near equal
0:49
abilities across the board in two languages,
0:52
most bilinguals around the world know and use their languages
0:55
in varying proportions.
0:57
And depending on their situation and how they acquired each language,
1:01
they can be classified into three general types.
1:04
For example, let’s take Gabriella,
1:07
whose family immigrates to the US from Peru when she’s two-years old.
1:12
As a compound bilingual,
1:13
Gabriella develops two linguistic codes simultaneously,
1:18
with a single set of concepts,
1:20
learning both English and Spanish
1:22
as she begins to process the world around her.
1:25
Her teenage brother, on the other hand, might be a coordinate bilingual,
1:29
working with two sets of concepts,
1:31
learning English in school,
1:33
while continuing to speak Spanish at home and with friends.
1:36
Finally, Gabriella’s parents are likely to be subordinate bilinguals
1:41
who learn a secondary language
1:43
by filtering it through their primary language.
1:46
Because all types of bilingual people can become fully proficient in a language
1:50
regardless of accent or pronunciation,
1:52
the difference may not be apparent to a casual observer.
1:55
But recent advances in brain imaging technology
1:58
have given neurolinguists a glimpse
2:00
into how specific aspects of language learning affect the bilingual brain.
2:05
It’s well known that the brain’s left hemisphere is more dominant
2:09
and analytical in logical processes,
2:11
while the right hemisphere is more active in emotional and social ones,
2:16
though this is a matter of degree, not an absolute split.
2:20
The fact that language involves both types of functions
2:22
while lateralization develops gradually with age,
2:25
has lead to the critical period hypothesis.
2:28
According to this theory,
2:30
children learn languages more easily
2:32
because the plasticity of their developing brains
2:35
lets them use both hemispheres in language acquisition,
2:38
while in most adults, language is lateralized to one hemisphere,
2:42
usually the left.
2:44
If this is true, learning a language in childhood
2:47
may give you a more holistic grasp of its social and emotional contexts.
2:52
Conversely, recent research showed
2:54
that people who learned a second language in adulthood
2:57
exhibit less emotional bias and a more rational approach
3:01
when confronting problems in the second language
3:03
than in their native one.
3:05
But regardless of when you acquire additional languages,
3:08
being multilingual gives your brain some remarkable advantages.
3:12
Some of these are even visible,
3:13
such as higher density of the grey matter
3:16
that contains most of your brain’s neurons and synapses,
3:19
and more activity in certain regions when engaging a second language.
3:23
The heightened workout a bilingual brain receives throughout its life
3:26
can also help delay the onset of diseases, like Alzheimer’s and dementia
3:31
by as much as five years.
3:33
The idea of major cognitive benefits to bilingualism
3:35
may seem intuitive now,
3:37
but it would have surprised earlier experts.
3:40
Before the 1960s, bilingualism was considered a handicap
3:44
that slowed a child’s development
3:45
by forcing them to spend too much energy distinguishing between languages,
3:50
a view based largely on flawed studies.
3:54
And while a more recent study did show
3:56
that reaction times and errors increase for some bilingual students
3:59
in cross-language tests,
4:01
it also showed that the effort and attention needed
4:03
to switch between languages triggered more activity in,
4:06
and potentially strengthened, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.
4:11
This is the part of the brain that plays a large role
4:14
in executive function, problem solving, switching between tasks,
4:18
and focusing while filtering out irrelevant information.
4:22
So, while bilingualism may not necessarily make you smarter,
4:26
it does make your brain more healthy, complex and actively engaged,
4:30
and even if you didn’t have the good fortune
4:33
of learning a second language as a child,
4:35
it’s never too late to do yourself a favor
4:37
and make the linguistic leap from, “Hello,”
4:40
to, “Hola,” “Bonjour” or “你好’s”
4:43
because when it comes to our brains a little exercise can go a long way.
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Filed under: 0►TRUST, 1►LISTEN▼, 1►TO DO, 2►READ, 3►SPEAK▼, 4►WRITE

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