Juggling languages can build better brains

February 18, 2011

Once likened to a confusing tower of Babel, speaking more than one language can actually bolster brain function by serving as a mental gymnasium, according to researchers.

Recent research indicates that bilingual speakers can outperform monolinguals--people who speak only one language--in certain , such as editing out irrelevant information and focusing on important information, said Judith Kroll, Distinguished Professor of Psychology, Penn State. These skills make bilinguals better at prioritizing tasks and working on multiple projects at one time.

"We would probably refer to most of these cognitive advantages as multi-tasking," said Kroll, director of the Center for Language Science. "Bilinguals seem to be better at this type of perspective taking."

Kroll said that these findings counter previous conclusions that bilingualism hindered .

"The received wisdom was that bilingualism created , especially in children," said Kroll told attendees today (Feb. 18) at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington D.C. "The belief was that people who could speak two or more languages had difficulty using either. The bottom line is that bilingualism is good for you."

Researchers trace the source of these enhanced multi-tasking skills to the way bilinguals mentally negotiate between the languages, a skill that Kroll refers to as mental juggling.

When bilinguals speak with each other, they can easily slip in and out of both languages, often selecting the word or phrase from the language that most clearly expresses their thoughts. However, fluent bilinguals rarely make the mistake of slipping into another language when they speak with someone who understands only one language.

"The important thing that we have found is that both languages are open for bilinguals; in other words, there are alternatives available in both languages," Kroll said. "Even though language choices may be on the tip of their tongue, bilinguals rarely make a wrong choice."

This language selection, or code switching, is a form of mental exercise, according to Kroll.

"The bilingual is somehow able to negotiate between the competition of the languages," Kroll said. "The speculation is that these cognitive skills come from this juggling of languages."

Kroll's symposium at the meeting included distinguished language scientists who have investigated the consequences of bilingualism across the lifespan. Ellen Bialystok, Distinguished Research Professor of Psychology at York University, Toronto, was instrumental in demonstrating that bilingualism improves certain mental skills.

According to Bialystok, the benefits of bilingualism appear across age groups. Studies of children who grow up as bilingual speakers indicate they are often better at perspective-taking tasks, such as prioritizing, than monolingual children. Experiments with older bilingual speakers indicate that the enhanced mental skills may protect them from problems associated with aging, such as Alzheimer's disease and dementia.

Researchers use MRIs and electroencephalographs to track how the brain operates when it engages in language juggling. They also use eye-movement devices to watch how bilinguals read sentences. When a person reads, the eyes jump through the sentence, stopping to comprehend certain words or phrases. These distinctive eye movements can offer researchers clues on the subtle ways bilinguals comprehend compared to monolinguals.

Kroll noted that the enhanced brain functions of bilinguals do not necessarily make them more intelligent or better learners.

" simply acquire specific types of expertise that help them attend to critical tasks and ignore irrelevant information," Kroll said.

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17 comments

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frajo
1 / 5 (1) Feb 18, 2011
Hai serios. Am si eu o teorie: limba engleza este boala mentala.
Malakies les, sovara.
frajo
1 / 5 (1) Feb 18, 2011
"The bilingual is somehow able to negotiate between the competition of the languages," Kroll said. "The speculation is that these cognitive skills come from this juggling of languages."
I wouldn't say that the polyglot negotiates between competing languages.
Everyone's vocabulary is the set of all words known to him. Polyglots simply have a larger vocabulary.
hush1
not rated yet Feb 18, 2011
"The bottom line is that bilingualism is good for you."

My parents never told me. Never told you what?
Whether bilingualism is good for me or not.

Well, maybe your parents never knew whether bilingualism is good or not.

@fanjo & finitesolutions:

Just imagine all the researchers being multilingual.
Resulting in an article and research never written as such here displayed - and our comments never read.

The human languages. In the name of understanding - asking, taxing, our imagination to assign meaning to words. That all human language can face extinction. How human! How illogical!! How sad!!!

To missed words and worries I will never know.
Mir ist es lieber so.
kaasinees
1 / 5 (1) Feb 18, 2011
I know Pascal, Visual Basic, VB Script, Java, Java Script, html, C, C++, C#, python, perl and ASSEMBLY. And there are probably a few more i dont use anymore but forgot.

English, Dutch and German. And now learning Tagalog, Spanish and Romanian.

Does this mean i have a nice brain?
hush1
5 / 5 (1) Feb 18, 2011
I know Pascal, Visual Basic, VB Script, Java, Java Script, html, C, C++, C#, python, perl and ASSEMBLY. And there are probably a few more i dont use anymore but forgot.

English, Dutch and German. And now learning Tagalog, Spanish and Romanian.

Does this mean i have a nice brain?


lol. I don't know. Yours words are nice. To all who use those words.

Learning is fun. Regardless of purpose.
frajo
3 / 5 (2) Feb 19, 2011
"The bottom line is that bilingualism is good for you."
My parents never told me. Never told you what?
Whether bilingualism is good for me or not.
Well, maybe your parents never knew whether bilingualism is good or not.
Doesn't matter. Wittgenstein's adage is nevertheless a valid one:
die grenzen deiner sprache sind die grenzen deiner welt.

Just imagine all the researchers being multilingual.
Most are as research publications show a strong English tendency.
Resulting in an article and research never written as such here displayed - and our comments never read.
On the contrary. To reach an international audience articles ought to be written in a Lingua Franca.
The human languages. In the name of understanding - asking, taxing, our imagination to assign meaning to words. That all human language can face extinction.
Can't follow your conclusion.
To missed words and worries I will never know.
Mir ist es lieber so.
Ungesehen ist nicht ungeschehen.
Beard
not rated yet Feb 19, 2011
English here; I'm already #1 so why try harder?
frajo
not rated yet Feb 19, 2011
English here; I'm already #1 so why try harder?
You confuse spread with fitness.
hush1
not rated yet Feb 20, 2011
Doesn't matter. Wittgenstein's adage is nevertheless a valid one:

The limits of your language are the limits of your world


Yes. Agreed. Doesn't matter. I concur to Wittenstein's adage and your assertion to it's validity.

On the contrary. To reach an international audience articles ought to be written in a Lingua Franca.


You missed my point.
"The speculation is that these cognitive skills come from this juggling of languages."


There is no "speculation" if the limit of everyone's language is ALL languages. If the limit of everyone's world is everyone's "world", regardless if this 'all language world' has a limit or not.

Can't follow your conclusion.


All human languages are susceptible to extinction.
Why can you NOT follow this conclusion?
What PREVENTS you from not following this conclusion?

Ungesehen ist nicht ungeschehen.


It is STILL dogma. The ubiquitous "sound of a falling tree in the forest..."

I expressed sentiment. Nothing more.
hush1
not rated yet Feb 20, 2011
@ frajo:

I never learned how to "rank" someone here. I don't know how. Oh wait...let's see if this works...

:)

You are the first I have ever "ranked" here.
"Ranking" never enter my mind. I was always to busy reading - in an attempt to understand the comments and commentators.

The "five star"? I gave you for indulging me. Let us both harbor the desire that it is never regarded as a waste of our mutual social attempts.
frajo
1 / 5 (1) Feb 20, 2011
"The speculation is that these cognitive skills come from this juggling of languages."
There is no "speculation" if the limit of everyone's language is ALL languages.
Of course. But that's not today's reality.

All human languages are susceptible to extinction.
Why can you NOT follow this conclusion?
Because it's a statement about presently used languages which could be understood as a linguistic theorem or, alternatively, as an astrophysical theorem. While the second one is commonplace and doesn't need to be discussed the first one raises questions which need to be addressed. Are Greek and Latin extinct? Is today's English the same English as 1500 years ago?

Ungesehen ist nicht ungeschehen.
It is STILL dogma. The ubiquitous "sound of a falling tree in the forest..."
Not at all. Just separate the special case of Quantum Mechanics from "classical physics".
When we accept the reality of emergence phenomena we are liberated from "understanding" QM.
frajo
1 / 5 (1) Feb 20, 2011
I never learned how to "rank" someone here. I don't know how. Oh wait...let's see if this works...
Wait until you are being ranked ...

It's a psychological glue to keep people returning to the site even after having been burnt.
hush1
not rated yet Feb 20, 2011
Because it's a statement about presently used languages which could be understood as a linguistic theorem or, alternatively, as an astrophysical theorem. While the second one is commonplace and doesn't need to be discussed the first one raises questions which need to be addressed. Are Greek and Latin extinct? Is today's English the same English as 1500 years ago?


Correct. "Language extinction" Inaccessible to the Null Hypothesis. Inaccessible to scientific methodology. An "extinction" that leaves no traceable evidence: That a language - asserted to have gone extinct - ever existed. What a sad state of affairs.

Of course. But that's not today's reality


Agreed. A sentiment. A sentiment I assert everyone shares. To be fluent in all human languages.
Sentiments. Not scientific. Shoot me. :)

Better yet. Don't "rank" me. I learn more by being burned. The 'steeper slope' of the learning curve.

hush1
not rated yet Feb 20, 2011
When we accept the reality of emergence phenomena we are liberated from "understanding" QM.


Hmmm. You experience the limit of your languages.
And then you limit your "liberation" to this?

Then I will express the sentiment that you never accept that. :) For everyone's sake.
hush1
not rated yet Feb 20, 2011
Still learning to rank - pressed "one star" by mistake.

I have no "unit of measure" by which I can "rank".
A personal problem.
frajo
1 / 5 (1) Feb 21, 2011
"Language extinction" Inaccessible to the Null Hypothesis. Inaccessible to scientific methodology. An "extinction" that leaves no traceable evidence: That a language - asserted to have gone extinct - ever existed.
You remind me of one of my brothers. He likes to express high level nonsense.
hush1
not rated yet Feb 21, 2011
:)

You remind me of one of my brothers. He likes to express high level nonsense.


We were all wondering the source of all your comments.

We are relieve to know that 'wisdom' is not yours
We do look forward to hearing from you as well.
Feel free to post your own comments as well.

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