Bilingualism benefits cognition

source: (2013)

Alice Yu

source: (2013)
source: (2013)
Born to Korean parents in Russia, junior Aleks Shin’s language learning experience began with Russian.
When his family moved to the United States in search of better economic prospects, he took another step in his multi-lingual journey with his acquisition of English skills. Now he has more than four languages under his belt and is thirsting to learn more.
As a speaker of English, Russian, Spanish, Torlakian and a few archaic languages, Shin is part of the 18 percent of Americans who are fluent in two or more languages. This population of bilinguals, trilinguals and other multilinguals have more than just an advantage in the sphere of communication, according to a 2011 study led by University of California-San Diego neuropsychologist Tamar Gollan.
Gollan’s studies suggest that lifelong bilinguals have better cognitive skills at an older age, a statement supported by studies conducted by Christos Pilatsikas, a lecturer in cognitive psychology at the University of Kent. Pilatsikas’ research reveals that bilingualism can increase the volume of grey matter — the substance that directs neurons for sensory perception and muscle control — in brain areas that are involved in language learning and processing.
“There are several advantages,” Flore Zéphir, University of Missouri-Columbia professor of French and expert in sociolinguistics, said. “One is the communicative advantage. You have a wider sphere of communication with family, with the community [and] international communication with other speakers from that language. It’s also useful in employment in the sense that you have another way of communicating with customers who are speakers of that or those other languages.”
For junior Jiaming Ji who moved to the United States when she was 13 years old, fluency in both English and Mandarin Chinese is helpful in learning new languages, specifically Latin, but the age difference between when she first arrived in the U.S. and when she started learning Latin has slowed down the process.
“Since I came here when I was in middle school, I was still at a young age, so it wasn’t hard for me because I got used to it after a year or less than a year,” Ji said. “For Latin, I started last year. I think it was not that hard, but it was definitely harder than learning English because when I was a kid, you memorized things faster and things make more sense because you don’t know that much so you’ll just accept it.”
Zéphir said this ease in learning a third language is derived from a student’s familiarity with adapting to new structures in languages. By learning that second language, students know how to let go of the habits of one language to learn another language. But as students age, habits harden, making it hard to adjust to a new structure and language.
“It makes it more difficult because you have been so ingrained for so many years in one way of pronouncing words, in one way of structuring sentences,” Zéphir said. “The more you are used to a particular way of doing things, the harder it is to learn another way of doing things, and that’s the reason why children pick up a second language so easily, because they have no inhibition, so they pick up very easily what surrounds them. ”
To help keep all his languages fresh in his mind and prevent his brain from becoming too rooted in one language, Shin often takes notes in languages other than English. But with so many languages, it sometimes becomes a hassle to practice speaking and writing each of the separate languages.
“You forget some things. Sometimes you mix up other languages into your daily speech. It’s kind of embarrassing sometimes,” Shin said. “I guess, the more languages you know, the harder you have to work on keeping them alive in your head; otherwise, if you go through a period of not talking to anyone in that language, it just becomes dead.”
But Shin’s abundance in knowledge, along with other bilinguals, gives him wider cultural references and encourages tolerance, which is one of the greatest benefits of bilingualism in Zéphir’s eyes.
“You are able to see things from different perspectives. To me, that’s one of the importances of being a bilingual or trilingual as opposed to a monolingual,” Zéphir said. “You tend to be more attuned and more sensitive to differences and you are more tolerant of other people, again, because you have the advantage of that culture, of participating in that cultural world, as well as other cultural worlds.”
Elders tend to have more inhibitions. They are more afraid of making mistakes, they are afraid of taking risks, something that children do not have. Children, they are innovative. They can remake anything they hear around them, and I think that ability has greatly diminished in adult learners.
By Alice Yu
art by Ellie Stitizer
infographic source: (2013)