On Cognition and the Bilingual Mind

In the past year there has been a flurry of articles on the cognitive advantages of the bilingual mind. Below is a selection of quotes from various pieces.

The best of the articles comes from the Dana Foundation‘s Cerebrum publication (which includes a list of accompanying research for more exploration). In their piece, Viorica Marian, PhD and Anthony Shook conclude:

The cognitive and neurological benefits of bilingualism extend from early childhood to old age as the brain more efficiently processes information and staves off cognitive decline. What’s more, the attention and aging benefits discussed above aren’t exclusive to people who were raised bilingual; they are also seen in people who learn a second language later in life.25,28 The enriched cognitive control that comes along with bilingual experience represents just one of the advantages that bilingual people enjoy. Despite certain linguistic limitations that have been observed in bilinguals (e.g., increased naming difficulty7), bilingualism has been associated with improved metalinguistic awareness (the ability to recognize language as a system that can be manipulated and explored), as well as with better memory, visual-spatial skills, and even creativity.29Furthermore, beyond these cognitive and neurological advantages, there are also valuable social benefits that come from being bilingual, among them the ability to explore a culture through its native tongue or talk to someone with whom you might otherwise never be able to communicate. The cognitive, neural, and social advantages observed in bilingual people highlight the need to consider how bilingualism shapes the activity and the architecture of the brain, and ultimately how language is represented in the human mind, especially since the majority of speakers in the world experience life through more than one language.

Judy Willis, the internationally recognized neuroscientist turned educator, in her post on Psychology Today writes,

Recent studies of children who grow up in bilingual settings reveal advantages over single language children, including both increased attentive focus and cognition. The findings correlate with prefrontal cortex brain activity networks, which direct the highest levels of thinking and awareness.

Compared to monolinguals, the studied bilingual children, who had had five to ten years of bilingual exposure, averaged higher scores in cognitive performance on tests and had greater attention focus, distraction resistance, decision-making, judgment and responsiveness to feedback. The correlated neuroimaging (fMRI scans) of these children revealed greater activity in the prefrontal cortex networks directing these and other executive functions. (Bialystok, 2009; Kaushanskaya & Marian, 2007).

In March, the New York Times published a piece in their Grey Matters column that included this research finding:

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.

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.

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.

This post in the Wall Street Journal highlights the research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In the WSJ, Robert Lee Hotz writes,

In the new study, Kraus and her colleagues tested the involuntary neural responses to speech sounds by comparing brain signals in 23 high school students who were fluent in English and Spanish to those of 25 teenagers who only spoke English. When it was quiet, both groups could hear the test syllable — “da” — with no trouble, but when there was background noise, the brains of the bilingual students were significantly better at detecting the fundamental frequency of speech sounds.

“We have determined that the nervous system of a bilingual person responds to sound in a way that is distinctive from a person who speaks only one language,” Kraus says.

Through this fine-tuning of the nervous system, people who can master more than one language are building a more resilient brain, one more proficient at multitasking, setting priorities, and, perhaps, better able to withstand the ravages of age, a range of recent studies suggest.

Though a little bit older, research by Gallaudet professor, Laura-Ann Petitto, was published in the Mind, Brain, and Education journal in 2009. The abstract reads,

ABSTRACT— We discuss the fruits of educational neuroscience research from our laboratory and show how the typical maturational timing milestones in bilingual language acquisition provide educators with a tool for differentiating a bilingual child experiencing language and reading delay versus deviance. Further, early schooling in two languages simultaneously affords young bilingual children a reading advantage and may also ameliorate the negative effect of low socioeconomic status on literacy. Using powerful brain imaging technology, functional Near Infrared Spectroscopy,we provide a first-time look into the developing brains of bilingual as compared to monolingual children.We show unequivocally that the age of first bilingual exposure is a vital predictor of bilingual language and reading mastery. Accounts that promote later dual language and reading instruction, or those that assert human brain development is unrelated to bilingual language mastery, are not supported by the present findings. We discuss the implications for education, teachers, and developmental brain sciences.

What are the implications for education and educators? While there is no quick and readily applicable conclusion from the emerging research, it is clear we must be very intentional about how we approach second language learning and learners. Educating with the brain in mind necessitates we seek first to understand (our students) and then to be understood (by them).

Want to know more? Keep an eye on Edutopia’s excellent Brain-Based Learning blog and sign up for the Dana Foundation Newsletter.

Your Brain By the Numbers

Scientific America recently published the engaging and amusing image below. It is the result of a collaboration between Wake Forest School of Medicine neuroscientist, Dwayne Godwin and the writer/illustrator of the Piled Higher and Deeper comic strip, Jorge Cham. Not only will some of these fact amaze you, you’ll have fun reading them, perhaps due to the associative memory the images activate and the dopamine secreted while reading them.

(click on the image to pull up a larger version)