Bilingual benefits reach beyond communication

Nov 09, 2010

Speaking two languages can be handy when traveling abroad, applying for jobs, and working with international colleagues, but how does bilingualism influence the way we think? In the current issue of Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, Ellen Bialystok (York University), Fergus I.M. Craik (Rotman Research Institute), David W. Green (University College London), and Tamar H. Gollan (University of California, San Diego) review the latest research on bilingualism and ways in which knowing two languages can change brain function, even affecting brain areas not directly involved in communication.

Children learning two languages from birth achieve the same basic milestones (e.g., their first word) as monolinguals do, but they may use different strategies for acquisition. Although bilinguals tend to have smaller vocabularies in each language than do children who know one language, bilinguals may have an advantage when it comes to certain nonverbal cognitive tasks. Bilinguals tend to perform better than monolinguals on exercises that require blocking out distractions and switching between two or more different tasks. The authors note that "when a bilingual speaks two languages regularly, speaking in just one of these languages requires use of the control network to limit interference from the other language and to ensure the continued dominance of the intended language." The bilingual advantage in attention and cognitive control may have important, long-term benefits. Preliminary evidence even suggests that their increased use of these systems may protect bilinguals against Alzheimer's.

The differences between monolinguals and bilinguals have important clinical implications. For example, vocabulary tests are commonly used in psychologists' offices and bilinguals' scores may not accurately reflect their language ability. According to the authors, "Bilinguals who score below average may be inaccurately diagnosed with impairment when none is present, or could be diagnosed as 'normal for a bilingual' even though impairment is in fact present and treatment is needed." Clinicians need to be aware of the potential to misinterpret bilinguals' test scores. Developing tests that specifically target bilingual populations may result in better outcomes for these patients.

Explore further: Research on guilt-prone individuals has implications for workplace

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Exposure to two languages carries far-reaching benefits

May 19, 2009

People who can speak two languages are more adept at learning a new foreign language than their monolingual counterparts, according to research conducted at Northwestern University. And their bilingual advantage persists ...

Bilingual babies: The roots of bilingualism in newborns

Feb 16, 2010

It may not be obvious, but hearing two languages regularly during pregnancy puts infants on the road to bilingualism by birth. According to new findings in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Scienc ...

Researchers find a neural signature of bilingualism

Oct 17, 2006

Dartmouth researchers have found areas in the brain that indicate bilingualism. The finding sheds new light on decades of debate about how the human brain's language centers may actually be enhanced when faced ...

Lower lexical recall in bilingual kids no cause for alarm

Sep 16, 2009

If your French Immersion student is scratching their tête over not being able to think of the English word for sifflet or the French word for keyboard, a University of Alberta researcher has a sage piece of advice. Relax, ...

Recommended for you

Mindfulness helps teens cope with stress, anxiety

8 hours ago

As the morning school bell rings and students rush through crowded corridors, teenagers in one Portland classroom settle onto mats and meditation pillows. They fall silent after the teacher taps a Tibetan ...

Study links suicide risk with insomnia, alcohol use

11 hours ago

A new study is the first to show that insomnia symptoms mediate the relationship between alcohol use and suicide risk, and that this mediation is moderated by gender. The study suggests that the targeted ...

Echolocation acts as substitute sense for blind people

17 hours ago

Recent research carried out by scientists at Heriot-Watt University has demonstrated that human echolocation operates as a viable 'sense', working in tandem with other senses to deliver information to people with visual impairment.

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.