Understanding How the Brain Speaks Two Languages

Hablan dos idiomas? You should, if you know what's good for you

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Learning to speak was the most remarkable thing you ever did. It wasn’t just the 50,000 words you had to master to become fluent or the fact that for the first six years of your life you learned about three new words per day. It was the tenses and the syntax and the entire scaffolding of grammar, not to mention the metaphors and allusions and the almost-but-not-quite synonyms.

But you accomplished it, and good for you. Now imagine doing it two or three times over — becoming bilingual, trilingual or more. The mind of the polyglot is a very particular thing, and scientists are only beginning to look closely at how acquiring a second language influences learning, behavior and the very structure of the brain itself. At a bilingualism conference last weekend convened by the Lycée Français de New York, where all students learn in both English and French, and the Cultural Services of the French Embassy, language experts gathered to explore where the science stands so far and where it’s heading next (disclosure: my children are LFNY students).

Humans are crude linguists from the moment of birth — and perhaps even in the womb — to the extent at least that we can hear spoken sounds and begin to recognize different combinations language sounds. At first, we don’t much care which of these phonemes from which languages we absorb, which makes sense since the brain has to be ready to learn any of the world’s thousands of languages depending on where we’re born.

“Before 9 months of age, a baby produces a babble made up of hundreds of phonemes from hundreds of languages,” said Elisabeth Cros, a speech therapist with the Ecole Internationale de New York. “Parents will react to the phonemes they recognize from their native tongues, which reinforces the baby’s use of those selected ones.”

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Doubling down on a pair of languages rather than just one does take extra work, but it’s work young children are generally not aware they’re doing. Bilingual people of all ages are continually addressing what research psychologist Ellen Bialystok of Toronto’s York University calls the dog-chien dilemma, encountering an object, action or concept and instantaneously toggling between two different words to describe it. Such nimble decisionmaking ought to improve on-the-fly problem solving, and studies show that it does.

Language researchers often point to the famed Stroop test, which asks subjects to look at the word red, for example, which is presented in an ink of a different color, say blue. Then they are required to say aloud or identify on a computer the ink color. That requires an additional fraction of a second to accomplish than if both the word and ink color were the same. Everyone experiences that lag, but for bilinguals it’s measurably shorter. “Monolinguals always need more time,” Bialystok says. “It’s a lifelong advantage for bilinguals.”

Excelling on the Stroop test is hardly a marketable skill, but what it suggests about the brain is something else. Sean Lynch, headmaster of the LFNY, previously worked in a multilingual school in France in which all of the students spoke French and at least one of 12 other languages, including Japanese, Russian, Italian and Spanish. As is often the case with well-endowed schools, the students, on average, outperformed their age peers academically, and it’s impossible to determine how much of that is due to native skill and how much to the fact that they simply have access to better teachers, books and other resources. Still, Lynch observed that these students seemed to show a greater facility with skills that relied on interpreting symbolic representations, such as math or music.

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Lynch also believes — albeit based primarily on his own observations — that multilingual kids may exhibit social empathy sooner than children who grow up speaking only one language, which makes developmental sense. The theory of mind — understanding that what’s in your head is not the same as what’s in other people’s heads — does not emerge in children until they’re about 3 years old. Prior to that, they assume that if, say, they know a secret you probably do too. There’s a kind of primal narcissism in this — a belief that their worldview is the universal one. Once they learn that’s not the case, self-centeredness falls away — at least a little — and the long process of true socialization begins. There’s nothing that accelerates the acquisition of that kind of other-awareness like the realization that even the very words you use to label the things in your world — dog, tree, banana — are not the same ones everyone uses.

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Preliminary imaging work suggests that the roots of this behavior may even be visible in the brain. Some studies, for example, have shown a thickening of the cortex in two brain regions — most importantly the left inferior parietal, which helps code for language and gesturing. Bialystok is not entirely sold on these studies, since she would expect the greatest differences to be in the frontal lobes, where higher functions such as planning, decisionmaking and other aspects of what’s known as executive control take place. Some of her own work has found an increase in white matter — the fatty sheathing that insulates nerves and improves their ability to communicate — in the frontal regions of bilinguals, suggesting denser signaling and complexity of functions in these areas. “Structural differences are where the new science is really unfolding,” she says. “That work will reveal a lot.”

Not every study out there finds benefits to bilingualism. Earlier this year, psychologists at Concordia University in Montreal studied 168 children ages 1 and 2 years old being raised by bilingual parents. In general, they found that the kids in the younger half of that cohort had smaller comprehension vocabularies — the number of words they appeared to understand — than kids being raised monolingual. The older half of the sample group had smaller production vocabularies — or words they could pronounce. This results, the researches believe, from parents mixing their languages when speaking to their kids, choosing the words they feel the children will have an easier time understanding or reproducing. That in turn leads to what linguists call code-switching — a commingling of tongues by the children that produces what Americans call Spanglish or Franglish when Spanish or French melded with English (this particular study produced more complex comminglings, since it included kids speaking German, Japanese and Farsi as well). However, Bialystok agrees that this is a short-term disadvantage of bilingualism, and says in most cases the kids catch up.

And when they do, language skills acquired early can pay late-life dividends. In one study, bilinguals experienced the onset of age-related dementia 4.1 years later than monolinguals, and full-blown Alzheimer’s 5.1 years later. “One school of thought says that any cognitive reserve — education, multilingualism, even playing Sudoku puzzles — strengthens the brain and helps it resist disease,” says Bialystok. “The other says that the brains of multilinguals experience the same level of disease as those of monolinguals, but they cope with it better. They function at a higher level than they would otherwise be able to function.”

In another 2013 study, this one from the University of Kentucky, bilingual and monolingual people in the 60- to 68-year-old age group underwent brain scans while performing a cognitive task that required them to switch back and forth among several different ideas. Both groups performed the task accurately, but bilinguals were faster as well as more metabolically economical in executing the cognitive mission, using less energy in the frontal cortex than the monolinguals.

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The very fact that something as simple as working with puzzles or having once got a good education can improve brain function does prove that multilingualism is not the only path to staying cognitively healthy in your dotage. And plenty of monolinguals do perfectly well at acquiring empathy and social skills early in life. Still, there are roughly 6,500 spoken languages in the world. There must be a reason our brains come factory-loaded to learn more than just one.

18 comments
michealhussy121
michealhussy121

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TravisWilliamson
TravisWilliamson

50,000 words you had to master...


are you kidding? most native speakers have a working vocabulary of about 5,000 words. maybe 10,000~15,000  if you were a lit major.

IvanCrespo2011
IvanCrespo2011

Great article! It was very useful for me cause I have 2 children, a 6-year-old daughter (who is autistic) and a 1-year-old son.  My daughter used to watch a lot of videos in English and I spoke to her only in English and my wife only in Portuguese (our L1). Strangely, Fatima (that's the name of my daughter) wasn't able to understand any of the languages. We thought it was just a phase and after some time she would start speaking both languages, but it didn't happen. Recently we discovered she was autistic. It was like a nightmare, I couldn't believe everything I had done was in vain. With my 1-year-old son I'm still in doubt about what to do. Should I speak to him in English and raise a bilingual child or should I wait until he turns 2 or 3? I read yesterday that a baby produces hundreds of phonemes from hundreds of languages. If I wait until he turns 2 or 3, wouldn't I be losing a precious time and a great opportunity to raise a bilingual child? What if he is autistic too? Gosh... that's confusing...  :-( 

MVesseur
MVesseur

It's a nice enough article, but I always find it amusing when people pepper their essay with "facts" from some obscure source that contradict each other, preferably in the same line.  Like this one: "It wasn’t just the 50,000 words you had to master to become fluent or the fact that for the first six years of your life you learned about three new words per day." 6 years times 365 times 3 equals 6570 words. It would take roughly 46 years to become 'fluent' by that standard. Luckily you can learn more words per day and luckily you don't have to master 50,000 words to become fluent in a language.


Read more: http://healthland.time.com/2013/04/23/bilingualism/#ixzz2ab9wkTC0

twentyfourseveninfrance
twentyfourseveninfrance

24/7 in France: Speaking more than one language is definitely an asset - now with health benefit finding, as well - Tant mieux!

blueaspen
blueaspen

If there was one and only one spoken language in the world, all the brains would come factory-loaded to learn 6,500 (maybe many more) "non existent languages" all the same. I don't think brains are factory-loaded to cope with language diversity. What my intuition is telling me (I'm not an expert) is that it's all the way round. Maybe any brain complex enough to acquire one human language has necessarily to be capable of acquiring any other human languages. This is just a hypothesis and I wonder if some linguist has ever formulated it (in a proper way).

HelloVeritas
HelloVeritas

Amazing! Learning more languages truly makes the difference in all scenarios! 

paulgeorges
paulgeorges

What a pleasure to be able to understand and speak at least 3 languages .......Indeed a pleasure to be able to read Time ,or "la Stampa" taking a cup of cofee in Torino, with la baguette the French bread not to forget to buy, to understand Corsican because I live in Corsica I 'm able to speak it and to read it, the evening to see Telesur ,Venezuelian chanel or Cuban chanel because of my Italien Spanish is a friendly music to listen,to understand also Creole because I used to live in French Guyana.....For myself I don't really understand how someone close to a border can't speak neighbouring country languages ! Just amazing for me. Perhaps the real answer because they don't want to. Speaking another language is real when you think directly in.Then you are able to see things differently way,not antagonist way but complementary. Door is open to discover other cooks,other history,other countries"Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn." Benjamin Franklin







tcooke
tcooke

I think there might be a mistake in the paragraph beginning with, "And when they do, language skills acquired early can pay late-life dividends. In one study, bilinguals experienced the onset of age-related dementia 4.1 years later than multilinguals, and full-blown Alzheimer’s 5.1 years later."

"Multilinguals" should actually be "monolinguals", right?

AndrewWeiler
AndrewWeiler

There is no doubt of the value of learning more than one language and of the capacity that we ALL have to learn multiple languages. The problem is that most people who set out to do just that meet with results far less than that which they had hoped for. Most in fact give up! Why? Not because they can't. But because they are using the wrong methods. Try knocking in a nail with  a book and see how successful you will be! The tools we use are critical. The problem is compounded by the fact that once we can't do it, our beliefs are formed and as Henry Ford said, "Whether you believe you can or whether you believe you can't you are right"

There are ways of learning that will produce results. You just need to find them ( like a good accountant! :-) ) Have a look at http://www.strategiesinlanguagelearning.com/how-to-learn-a-language/ as a starting point.

punkakes13
punkakes13

i really beliee that languages r one of the best exercizes for the brain, its so fasssst, and so vast too.. so may words to remember

i wonder how it is to know 3 languages, than 4

one day ill knw hahaha

pendragon05
pendragon05

Being bilingual - or multilingual - will ward off Alzheimer's.

CremeriusInge
CremeriusInge

@IvanCrespo2011 I don´t think you should wait so long. Your second child has not necessarily to be autistic, and why miss the chance to give the boy a second language ? It´s never lost time. I have a granddaughter (not autistic) who speaks three languages perfectly ! She has lived in three countries and there was no choice. She had to learn them. Her brother, my grandson, is autistic and it was recommended to speak only Portuguese with him, because they live in Brazil and the specialists told my son to do so. Whenever he comes to Buenos Aires, where I live, he listens to the TV in Spanish and plays with the YouTube games in Spanish and repeats whole sentences from the actors in Spanish or whatever language he gets on YouTube. And he pronounces each language perfectly well. So, don´t give up, including your daughter. She will understand anyway what both of you mean, even if she doesn´t speak the languages. My grandson understands perfectly well when we speak Spanish to him. This won´t mean that your daughter has the same type of autism than my grandson. You well know the broad spectrum autism has. Ask the therapists you have for her and they will lead you the way you will have to act with her. But start with your son. He probably will have no trouble and will learn both. As I know what it means to parents to have an autistic child, I really empathize with you ! Good luck, and most important: good specialists ! Kindest regards ! 

FeijooVizosoVerissimo
FeijooVizosoVerissimo

@blueaspen > Maybe any brain complex enough to... I have been teaching languages for many years to people with real problems for learning with my own methods. In my own family I have a person who is mentally retarded. He/ She cannot multiply at all and has problems for adding. Nevertheless he/ she speaks three Languages. All illiterate people in the world speak, at least, one language. Any child from any social class or ethnic group can grow up speaking up to five Languages as its Mother Language, but only if they learn them before they are 15 years old. After that age is difficult to learn a second Language.

paulgeorges
paulgeorges

@tcooke   Champollion mastered a dozen languages  languages was then closed to  Mathusalem

paulgeorges
paulgeorges

@punkakes13  You only have to buy a book to help you to learn and get involved in what you want to discover; Good luck