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Do People Who Speak More Than One Language Have A Cognitive Advantage?

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For many children, they grow up hearing and using two or more languages, with half of the world’s population is bilingual (Grojean, 2010). In most recent years, research and knowledge around how our brains work has increased greatly, this has led to improved research techniques such as electroencephalographic (EEG) and functional resonance imaging (fMRI). These two approaches to research aid in pooling significant information together regarding the cognitive and linguistic development of bilingual speakers. Bilingualism can begin to have cognitive benefits on a person as early as six months old, which will continue to benefit them throughout their life, which will give bilinguists definitive advantages throughout school and work. Furthermore, while bilingualism challenges people early on in their life, it also encompasses cognitive benefits that are lifelong. However, there are also various concerns and disadvantages around bilingualism, one of the first concerns that researchers suggested was that bilingualism confuses children. However, further research has shown that bilingualism has no major trigger for confusion, and has no fundamental negative impact on development, but actually has some important socio-cognitive benefits (Genesee, 2001).

It was suggested by Colin Baker (2011) that there are advantages cognitively to being bilingual. Baker’s research around the brain and bilingualism showed that bilinguals have an increased advantage when it comes to atypical thinking. It was also indicated that bilinguals have better focus, better at making decisions, a strong working memory and dementia was delayed by roughly four years. Bilinguals early metalinguistic awareness fosters or enhances literacy development and language attributes are readily transferred between languages (Baker, 2011). Previous research has shown that engagement programs are created to be preservative with bilingual and biliteracy outcomes (Baker, 2011). The main purpose for these programs is to improve and promote cognitive development, this is achieved through the development of literacy skills, higher level thinking and communicative skills. Hamers and Blanc (2000) stated; ‘there are some indications that early immersion programs might favour the child’s overall cognitive development.’ (Hamers and Blanc, 2000, p. 335). Moreover, Hamers and Blanc (2000) have presented strong evidence of immersion programs having cognitive advantages such as, total immersion students achieve as high results on math’s and sciences. In addition, once English literacy skills were introduced, any lag that occurred in the first two years of the total immersion disappeared. It was also noted that IQ capacity increased over years in those who are immersion students than those students who are in traditional English programs (Barik and Swain, 1978; cited in Hamers and Blanc, 2000).

Changes in Neurological Processing and Structure

According to recent studies, it is suggested that benefits of bilingualism in administrative function are not restricted to the brain’s networks (Bialystok et al. 2012 as cited in Marian and Shook, 2012). fMRI has been widely used by a number of researched to investigate which sections of the brain are active when a person who is bilingual carries out different tasks in which they are compelled to interchange between their two spoken languages. An example of this is when bilingual people have to alternate between naming things in French and also naming them in English, they show an increase of stimulation in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) , this is a sector that is affiliated with specific cognitive skills such as inhibition and attention. In addition with the DLPFC, it has been found that switching involves structures such as

Along with the DLPFC, language switching has been found to involve such structures as the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), bilateral supermarginal gyri, and left inferior frontal gyrus (left-IFG), regions that are also involved in cognitive control.

The left-IFG in particular, often considered the language production center of the brain, appears to be involved in both linguistic and non-linguistic cognitive control. The neurological roots of the bilingual advantage extend to subcortical brain areas more traditionally associated with sensory processing. When monolingual and bilingual adolescents listen to simple speech sounds (e.g., the syllable “da”) without any intervening background noise, they show highly similar brain stem responses to the auditory information. When researchers play the same sound to both groups in the presence of background noise, the bilingual listeners’ neural response is considerably larger, reflecting better encoding of the sound’s fundamental frequency, a feature of sound closely related to pitch perception. To put it another way, in bilingual people, blood flow (a marker for neuronal activity) is greater in the brain stem in response to the sound. Intriguingly, this boost in sound encoding appears to be related to advantages in auditory attention. The cognitive control required to manage multiple languages appears to have broad effects on neurological function, fine-tuning both cognitive control mechanisms and sensory processes. Beyond differences in neuronal activation, bilingualism seems to affect the brain’s structure as well. Higher proficiency in a second language, as well as earlier acquisition of that language, correlates with higher gray matter volume in the left inferior parietal cortex. Researchers have associated damage to this area with uncontrolled language switching, suggesting that it may play an important role in managing the balance between two languages. Likewise, researchers have found white matter volume changes in bilingual children and older adults. It appears that bilingual experience not only changes the way neurological structures process information, but also may alter the neurological structures themselves.

Improvements in Learning

Being bilingual can have tangible practical benefits. The improvements in cognitive and sensory processing driven by bilingual experience may help a bilingual person to better process information in the environment, leading to a clearer signal for learning. This kind of improved attention to detail may help explain why bilingual adults learn a third language better than monolingual adults learn a second language. The bilingual language-learning advantage may be rooted in the ability to focus on information about the new language while reducing interference from the languages they already know. This ability would allow bilingual people to more easily access newly learned words, leading to larger gains in vocabulary than those experienced by monolingual people who aren’t as skilled at inhibiting competing information. Furthermore, the benefits associated with bilingual experience seem to start quite early— researchers have shown bilingualism to positively influence attention and conflict management in infants as young as seven months. In one study, researchers taught babies growing up in monolingual or bilingual homes that when they heard a tinkling sound, a puppet appeared on one side of a screen. Halfway through the study, the puppet began appearing on the opposite side of the screen. In order to get a reward, the infants had to adjust the rule they’d learned; only the bilingual babies were able to successfully learn the new rule. This suggests that even for very young children, navigating a multilingual environment imparts advantages that transfer beyond language.

Cognitive Consequences of Bilingualism

Research has overwhelmingly shown that when a bilingual person uses one language, the other is active at the same time. When a person hears a word, he or she doesn’t hear the entire word all at once: the sounds arrive in sequential order.

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Long before the word is finished, the brain’s language system begins to guess what that word might be by activating lots of words that match the signal. If you hear “can,” you will likely activate words like “candy” and “candle” as well, at least during the earlier stages of word recognition. For bilingual people, this activation is not limited to a single language; auditory input activates corresponding words regardless of the language to which they belong.

3 Some of the most compelling evidence for language co-activation comes from studying eye movements. We tend to look at things that we are thinking, talking, or hearing about. 5 A Russian-English bilingual person asked to “pick up a marker” from a set of objects would look more at a stamp than someone who doesn’t know Russian, because the Russian word for “stamp,” “marka,” sounds like the English word he or she heard, “marker.” In cases like this, language co-activation occurs because what the listener hears could map onto words in either language.

Furthermore, language co-activation is so automatic that people consider words in both languages even without overt similarity. For example, when Chinese-English bilingual people judge how alike two English words are in meaning, their brain responses are affected by whether or not the Chinese translations of those words are written similarly. Even though the task does not require the bilingual people to engage their Chinese, they do so anyway. Having to deal with this persistent linguistic competition can result in language difficulties. For instance, knowing more than one language can cause speakers to name pictures more slowly and can increase tip-of-the-tongue states (where you’re unable to fully conjure a word, but can remember specific details about it, like what letter it starts with). As a result, the constant juggling of two languages creates a need to control how much a person accesses a language at any given time. From a communicative standpoint, this is an important skill— understanding a message in one language can be difficult if your other language always interferes. Likewise, if a bilingual person frequently switches between languages when speaking, it can confuse the listener, especially if that listener knows only one of the speaker’s languages. To maintain the relative balance between two languages, the bilingual brain relies on executive functions, a regulatory system of general cognitive abilities that includes processes such as attention and inhibition. Because both of a bilingual person’s language systems are 4 always active and competing, that person uses these control mechanisms every time she or he speaks or listens. This constant practice strengthens the control mechanisms and changes the associated brain regions. 9-12 Bilingual people often perform better on tasks that require conflict management. In the classic Stroop task, people see a word and are asked to name the color of the word’s font. When the color and the word match (i.e., the word “red” printed in red), people correctly name the color more quickly than when the color and the word don’t match (i.e., the word “red” printed in blue). This occurs because the word itself (“red”) and its font color (blue) conflict. The cognitive system must employ additional resources to ignore the irrelevant word and focus on the relevant color. The ability to ignore competing perceptual information and focus on the relevant aspects of the input is called inhibitory control. Bilingual people often perform better than monolingual people at tasks that tap into inhibitory control ability. Bilingual people are also better than monolingual people at switching between two tasks; for example, when bilinguals have to switch from categorizing objects by color (red or green) to categorizing them by shape (circle or triangle), they do so more rapidly than monolingual people,13 reflecting better cognitive control when changing strategies on the fly.


The cognitive and neurological benefits of bilingualism extend from early childhood to old age as the brain more efficiently processes information and staves off cognitive decline. What’s more, the attention and aging benefits discussed above aren’t exclusive to people who were raised bilingual; they are also seen in people who learn a second language later in life. The enriched cognitive control that comes along with bilingual experience represents just one of the advantages that bilingual people enjoy. Despite certain linguistic limitations that have been observed in bilinguals (e.g., increased naming difficulty ), bilingualism has been associated with improved metalinguistic awareness (the ability to recognize language as a system that can be manipulated and explored), as well as with better memory, visual-spatial skills, and even creativity. Furthermore, beyond these cognitive and neurological advantages, there are also valuable social benefits that come from being bilingual, among them the ability to explore a culture through its native tongue or talk to someone with whom you might otherwise never be able to communicate. The cognitive, neural, and social advantages observed in bilingual people highlight the need to consider how bilingualism shapes the activity and the architecture of the brain, and ultimately how language is represented in the human mind, especially since the majority of speakers in the world experience life through more than one language.

In conclusion, research has shown that bilingualism does not lead to confusion, nor does it have any inherent negative impact on development. In the early stages of the acquisition of a second language, children hearing two languages can show some developmental lags relative to children who speak only one.24 However, bilinguals are not globally behind monolingual children in all areas of language acquisition, and the observed lags are typically small and do not last for long periods of time.

Bilingual children show some advantages in socio-cognitive development when compared to monolinguals, particularly in understanding the beliefs of others, picking out the important variables to solve a problem, and entertaining two possible interpretations of the same stimulus at once.

There has been no research on bilingual children’s use of emotion language. However, research with bilingual adults suggests that the language in which events occur could be strongly linked to the emotional overtone of the memory of those events. It is possible, then, that the context in which a language is learned can have an impact on bilingual children’s ability to express themselves and their accuracy in expression.

In sum, there are no overall disadvantages to bilingualism. On the contrary, there can be significant disadvantages regarding children’s loss of a home/heritage language, which is often deeply intertwined with family, emotions and identity.


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