Speak in Many Tongues

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Learning more than one language as a child enhances cognitive abilities as well as reduces memory loss in old age. P. Hari reports :-

It’s a situation that is becoming increasingly common. Children grow up hearing two languages, because parents speak two different native tongues. This bothered the parents, but psychologists are becoming increasingly unanimous in their opinion: bilingualism is good for the brain. It makes you better at learning new things, gives a better memory, and even helps reduce memory loss in old age.

Studies show that children who grow up hearing two languages have better cognitive abilities. They can not only process languages better, or learn a new one better, but also learn anything new better than those who speak only one language. This much was known or at least suspected till recently. But now we are also beginning to know why: those who speak two tongues may be better at shutting down irrelevant information. “Bilinguals do better in environments that inhibit attention,” says Margaria Kaushanskaya, assistant professor, department of communicative disorders, University of Wisconsin.

For a long time, psychologists had thought that those who speak more than one language are naturally adept at learning new languages. While this has some truth, it is also known clearly that learning two tongues from the beginning makes learning a third easier. Children learn to generalise about language and transfer their ability to learning another language. “Early bilingual exposure increases executive control,” says Raymond Kelin, professor of psychology, Dalhousie University, Canada.

In experiments early this year, Kaushanskaya and her former colleague Viorica Marian at Northwestern University, Chicago, experimented with an artificial language. They asked three sets of people — those who spoke English and Chinese, English and Spanish, and only English — to learn a set of words that was in an invented language with no resemblance to any of these languages. The bilingual groups learned twice as many words as the other group, showing that they learned something deeper than just two languages.

This much seems common sense. However, the value of learning two languages goes far beyond linguistic ability. Studies at York University in Canada show that proficiency in two languages can delay dementia by about 4.1 years. This may seem a tiny amount, but actually translates to a 47 per cent reduction in prevalence. Other studies too have shown similar reductions are possible through stimulating mental activity. There are no known drugs that can produce this effect. “We have evidence that bilingualism can slow cognitive aging and postpone the onset of symptoms of dementia,” says Ellen Bialystock, distinguished research professor, department of psychology, York University. This is probably not because the bilingual brain reduces the negative physiological changes but that it learns to tolerate the negative changes better.

There is considerable interest among Canadian psychologists in bilingualism, partly because it is rapidly becoming the norm in that country. Many Canadians speak English and French. In Toronto, which is among the most cosmopolitan cities in the world, almost 60 per cent of kindergarten children come from homes where English is not spoken as the first language. Bilingualism is also common in many non-English-speaking countries, including India. However, in Europe and English speaking nations, some parents and teachers would frown on the practice, arguing that children could get confused if started too early. Current evidence, however, points to the opposite.

Scientists at the International School for Advanced Studies in Trieste, Italy, found that exposing children to two languages is beneficial even when the child is yet to speak a language. They found that infants raised with two languages show better cognitive abilities by the time they are seven months old. Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, this the first study to show that children learn to respond to two languages by the second half of the first year. And also that this response improves brain function.

Other research shows that this improved cognition stays throughout life, and could be more useful in old age. In studies at York University, bilingual adults performed consistently better than monolinguals. They performed better even in working memory trials, thus providing evidence that the advantage of bilingualism extends beyond language. Psychologists had debated for long on what is more important: early exposure to two languages or proficiency in two languages. “It is becoming clear that it is proficiency that matters,” says Kaushanskaya.

And since the world is becoming increasingly bilingual, our brains may be in better shape than ever.

The Telegraph (Kolkata, India)

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