Wednesday, April 4, 2012

10 Proven Brain Benefits Of Being Bilingual

These days, attaining fluency in two or more languages looks fabulous on college and job applications and presents opportunities in numerous corners of life completely denied to the monolingual. Old or young, however, bilingual individuals enjoy some decidedly physiological rewards for their linguistic capabilities, which aren’t always immediately noticeable. Come to find out, the human body’s most important organ receives generous stimulation from soaking up multiple tongues as well. So before griping about that mandatory foreign language course, take a look at some of the most excellent things that could happen after mastering one.


Bilingual individuals with Alzheimer’s take twice as long to develop symptoms as their monolingual counterparts, and scientists at St. Michael’s Hospital believe a distinct correlation exists between language development and delayed dementia. However, the symptoms between both demographics remained equally destructive; the only difference lay in the amount of damage needed for them to materialize. The prevailing hypothesis regarding why this phenomenon occurs involves how the multilingual mind strengthens itself by switching between tongues, which bolsters brain function overall.


In general, the bilingual tend to enjoy far sharper cognitive skills, keeping the brain constantly active and alert even when only one language prevails. Studies conducted on preschoolers revealed that those capable of speaking multiple languages performed far better on sorting puzzles, both in speed and success. Their ability to strike a balance and switch between different “modes,” as it were, eased the transition between various tasks with swapped out goals. Categorizing shapes by color and form, specifically, even if the denoted form sports a different color than that of the bin.


Learning a new language as either a child or an adult greatly benefits those pursuing creative careers or hobbies. Even the more technical still get something amazing out of the bargain, however, as bilingualism still nurtures the “outside-the-box” thinking necessary for sharp problem solving and innovation. Numerous studies linking acumen in multiple languages and creativity exist, and this one by Texas Women’s University stands as one of the clearest, straightforward examples.


When presented with distractions, the bilingual individuals studied by York University maneuvered them more adroitly and displayed heightened concentration on their assignments than the monolingual. The specific languages spoken held no influence over this mental flexibility; anyone fluent in more than one tongue reaps these cognitive rewards. However, some evidence exists that knowing two or more with structural similarities to one another might offer up a slight advantage.


York University also noted improvements in literacy and literacy skill acquisition in bilingual children. “Metalinguistic” abilities, which promote a more intimate understanding of verbal and non-verbal communication, receive the biggest boost here. Such abilities do come at cost on the front end, however, as language acquisition in multilingual individuals does progress at a slightly slower pace.


University of Pompea Fabra researchers noted that their subjects fluent in one or more languages seem to express a much higher degree of environmental awareness. Essentially, this means their ability to process and “monitor” external stimuli sharpens alongside their verbal abilities. Because they must toggle between tongues, the bilingual’s brains come fine-tuned to pick up on subtleties and patterns both on and off the page.


As many of these other studies have no doubt already proven, the bi- and multilingual out there can brag that their brains multitask like a dream. Obviously, this directly ties into their sharpened cognitive skills resulting from bouncing back and forth between languages; which they do even when they’re only using one daily. Being able to switch off distractions with greater aplomb than the monolingual certainly doesn’t hurt the mental gear shifting, either.


Most of the brain consists of gray matter, which is responsible for dictating intelligence, particularly when it comes to acquiring and processing language, dictating attention spans, and establishing and storing memories. The bilingual possess more gray matter at a higher density than monolingual counterparts, and a team from Wellcome Department of Imaging and Neuroscience noted that the left hemisphere enjoyed more nervous loving than the right, thought the latter certainly doesn’t get left out of the festivities. Seeing as how the left side impacts language skills, it makes perfect sense that it’d come out a little thicker in the end.


When learning more about bilingualism and the brain, York University researchers noted that individuals who spoke both English and Tamil answered questions faster than those only fluent in the former. Understandable, considering how multilingualism acts as a sort of cognitive steroid dialing up the brain’s Six Million Dollar Man potential. Scientists tested the phenomenon using a series of non-verbal reasoning questions between groups of similarly-educated individuals from more or less homogenous backgrounds.


Crush together the swelling creativity, greater multitasking, generous environmental awareness, and other hallmarks of bilingualism and it probably comes as little surprise that speakers typically score higher on intelligence tests. Studies conducted in 1974 and 1986 dissected the phenomenon using both verbal and non-verbal measures. Everything seems to boil down to “greater intellectual flexibility” in general, with the language centers of the brain receiving an all-around power up the more a thinker engages with different tongues.

Contacts and sources:
Tim Handorf

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