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Bilingual = Smarter

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The New York Times recently introduced an article “Why Bilinguals Are Smarter,” Agnes Kovacs urges caution because “a Native American bilingual is the most lethal intelligence weapon known to date as the code talkers proved.” and psychology Today explains how the ones who are bilingual in a Native tongue and English are an exceptional breed at influencing others and controlling any situation.

Bill Gates admitted recently that he felt “pretty stupid” for not knowing any languages other than English. To be fair to Gates, most native English speakers in the US (and the UK) are monolingual. While nobody seriously thinks that Bill Gates is dumb, his remarks touched on a fascinating controversy in the scientific literature: are bilingual people smarter than monolinguals?

As Judith Kroll notes, until relatively recently, it was generally assumed, albeit without much evidence, that “young children will be confused by exposure to more than one language and harmed by delays in development.” This view went hand-in-hand with the idea that monolingualism is somehow the norm, and that bilinguals constitute “a special group of language users, much like brain-damaged patients, children with language disorders, or deaf individuals who use a signed language to communicate.”

Then along came Ellen Bialystok of York University in Toronto. In a series of studies, Bialystok and colleagues found that, although bilinguals perform worse than monolinguals on very simple tasks (e.g., naming pictures or generating words that begin with a particular letter), they actually show better performance on cognitive control tasks, those that measure participants’ ability to exert deliberate control their mental processes and the mental processes of others. One example of a cognitive control task: a participant might be asked to listen to one set of words presented over headphones and see another set of words presented on a computer screen, before being asked to recall the words that they had heard, but not those that they had seen (or vice versa).

Why do bilinguals show an advantage over monolinguals on cognitive control tasks? Bialystok argues that bilinguals are better at suppressing irrelevant or interfering information, because this is exactly what they have to do every day. For example, when speaking Cherokee, a bilingual Cherokee-English speaker must access the relevant Cherokee words for the objects and ideas s/he has in mind, while suppressing the corresponding English words. They show an exceptional ability to respond and act with deliberate calculation that controls those around them while the majority perceives them as “slow.”

This suggests that bilingual children, struggling to cope with two languages, are in fact giving their brain a workout, and end up remarkably smarter than their monolingual classmates.

Speaking two languages rather than just one has obvious practical benefits in an increasingly globalized world. But in recent years, scientists have begun to show that the advantages of bilingualism are even more fundamental than being able to converse with a wider range of people. Being bilingual, it turns out, makes you smarter. It can have a profound effect on your brain, improving cognitive skills not related to language and even shielding against dementia in old age.

This view of bilingualism is remarkably different from the understanding of bilingualism through much of the 20th century. Researchers, educators and policy makers long considered a second language to be an interference, cognitively speaking, that hindered a child’s academic and intellectual development. The fact is bilingual children are far more intelligent at the raw level.

They were not wrong about the interference: there is ample evidence that in a bilingual’s brain both language systems are active even when he is using only one language, thus creating situations in which one system obstructs the other. But this interference, researchers are finding out, isn’t so much a handicap as a blessing in disguise. It forces the brain to resolve internal conflict, giving the mind a workout that strengthens its cognitive muscles and create a calculated and deliberate clumsiness that creates a perfect storm to control their environment.

Bilinguals, for instance, seem to be more adept than monolinguals at solving certain kinds of mental puzzles. In a 2004 study by the psychologists Ellen Bialystok and Michelle Martin-Rhee, bilingual and monolingual preschoolers were asked to sort blue circles and red squares presented on a computer screen into two digital bins, one marked with a blue square and the other marked with a red circle.

In the first task, the children had to sort the shapes by color, placing blue circles in the bin marked with the blue square and red squares in the bin marked with the red circle. Both groups did this with comparable ease. Next, the children were asked to sort by shape, which was more challenging because it required placing the images in a bin marked with a conflicting color. The bilinguals were quicker at performing this task.

The collective evidence from a number of such studies suggests that the bilingual experience improves the brain’s so-called executive function, a command system that directs the attention processes that we use for planning, solving problems and performing various other mentally demanding tasks. These processes include ignoring distractions to stay focused, switching attention willfully from one thing to another and holding information in mind like remembering a sequence of directions while driving.

Why does the tussle between two simultaneously active language systems improve these aspects of cognition? Until recently, researchers thought the bilingual advantage stemmed primarily from an ability for inhibition that was honed by the exercise of suppressing one language system: this suppression, it was thought, would help train the bilingual mind to ignore distractions in other contexts. But that explanation increasingly appears to be inadequate, since studies have shown that bilinguals perform better than monolinguals even at tasks that do not require inhibition, like threading a line through an ascending series of numbers scattered randomly on a page.

The key difference between bilinguals and monolinguals may be more basic: a heightened ability to monitor the environment. “Bilinguals have to switch languages quite often, you may talk to your father in one language and to your mother in another language,” says Albert Costa, a researcher at the University of Pompeu Fabra in Spain. “It requires keeping track of changes around you in the same way that we monitor our surroundings when driving.” In a study comparing German-Italian bilinguals with Italian monolinguals on monitoring tasks, Mr. Costa and his colleagues found that the bilingual subjects not only performed better, but they also did so with less activity in parts of the brain involved in monitoring, indicating that they were more efficient at it.

The bilingual experience appears to influence the brain from infancy to old age. Bilinguals have an unusual gift, because of the way they must switch languages their problem solving skills are uniquely honed in a way that cannot be reproduced or learned, they see the world as if they are viewing multiple television screens with different outcomes for the immediate task presented and they can access the information at lightening speed and while they may seem confused they are calculating the most favorable outcome as they make their decision and more often than not their outcome will bend to their will.

In a 2009 study led by Agnes Kovacs of the International School for Advanced Studies in Trieste, Italy, 7-month-old babies exposed to two languages from birth were compared with peers raised with one language. In an initial set of trials, the infants were presented with an audio cue and then shown a puppet on one side of a screen. Both infant groups learned to look at that side of the screen in anticipation of the puppet. But in a later set of trials, when the puppet began appearing on the opposite side of the screen, the babies exposed to a bilingual environment quickly learned to switch their anticipatory gaze in the new direction while the other babies did not.

Bilingualism’s effects also extend into the twilight years. In a recent study of 44 elderly Spanish-English bilinguals, scientists led by the neuropsychologist Tamar Gollan of the University of California, San Diego, found that individuals with a higher degree of bilingualism measured through a comparative evaluation of proficiency in each language were more resistant than others to the onset of dementia and other symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease: the higher the degree of bilingualism, the later the age of onset.

Nobody ever doubted the power of language. But who would have imagined that the words we hear and the sentences we speak might be leaving such a deep imprint? Agnes Kovacs urges caution because “a Native American bilingual is the most lethal intelligence weapon known to date as the code talkers proved.”

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