Why being bilingual works wonders for your brain

Research indicates we may be predisposed to speak more than one language, and that doing so brings health benefits, such as delaying the onset of dementia

In a cafe in south London, two construction workers are engaged in cheerful banter, tossing terms backward and forward. Their cutlery dances during more emphatic gesticulations and they occasionally break off into loud guffaws. They are discussing a woman, that much is clear, but the details are lost on me. Its a dishonor, because their conversation voices fun and interesting, especially to a nosy person like me. But I dont speak their language.

Out of curiosity, I interrupt them to ask what language they are speaking. They both switch easily to English, explaining that they are Southern african and had been speaking Xhosa. In Johannesburg, where they are from, most people speak at least five languages, says one of them, Theo Morris. For instance, Morriss mothers tongue is Sotho, his fathers is Zulu; he learned Xhosa and Ndebele from his friends and neighbours and English and Afrikaans at school. I went to Germany before I came here, so I also speak German, he adds.

Was it easy to learn so many languages? Yes, its normal, he laughs.

Hes right. Around the world, more than half of people calculates differ from 60 -7 5% speak at least two languages. Many countries have more than one official national language South Africa has 11. People are increasingly expected to speak, read and write at least one of a handful of super speeches, such as English, Chinese, Hindi, Spanish or Arabic, as well. So to be monolingual, as many native English speakers are, is to be in the minority and perhaps to be missing out.

Multilingualism has been shown to have many social, psychological and lifestyle advantages. Furthermore, researchers are discovering a swath of health benefits from speaking more than one language, including faster stroke recovery and delayed onset of dementia.

Could it be that the human brain evolved to be multilingual, that those who speak only one speech are not exploiting their full potential? And in a world that is losing languages faster than ever at the current rate of one a fortnight, half our speeches will be extinct by the end of the century what will happen if the present rich diversity of languages disappears and most of us end up speaking only one?

I am sitting in a laboratory, headphones on, looking at pictures of snowflakes on a computer. As each pair of snowflakes seems, I hear a description of one of them through the headphones. All I have to do is decide which snowflake is being described. The only catch is that the descriptions are in a completely devised speech called Syntaflake.

Its part of an experiment by Panos Athanasopoulos, an ebullient Greek with a passion for languages. Professor of psycholinguistics and bilingual cognition at Lancaster University, hes at the forefront of a new wave of research into the bilingual mind. As you might expect, his lab is a Babel of different nationalities and languages, but no one here grew up speaking Syntaflake.

The task is profoundly strange and incredibly difficult. Usually, when interacting in a foreign speech, there are clues to help you decipher the meaning. The speaker might point to the snowflake as they speak, use their hands to demonstrate shapes or their thumbs to count out numbers, for example. Here, I have no such clues and, it being a made-up language, I cant even rely on picking up similarities to speeches I already know. By the end of the session, I have to admit defeat.

Studies indicate bilingual people guess differently according to the language they are using. Photo: Rex

I join Athanasopoulos and glumly recount my difficulty in learning the language, despite my best efforts. But it appears that was where I went wrong: The people who perform best on this task are the ones who dont care at all about the task and only want to get onto over as soon as possible. Students and teaching staff who try to work it out and find a pattern always do worst, he says.

Its impossible in the time given to decipher the rules of the language and make sense of whats being said to you. But your brain is primed to work it out subconsciously. Thats why, if you dont should be considered it, youll do OK in the test. Children do the best.

The first words ever uttered might have been as far back as 250,000 years ago, once our ancestors stood up on two legs and freed the ribcage from weight-bearing chores, permitting fine nerve control of breathing and pitching to develop. And when humen had one language, it wouldnt have been long before we had many.

Language evolution is to be able to compared to biological evolution, but whereas genetic change is driven by environmental pressures, speeches change and develop through social pressures. Over time, different groups of early humans would have found themselves speaking different languages. Then, in order to communicate with other groups for trade, travel and so on it would have been necessary for some members of a family or band to speak other tongues.

We can get some sense of how prevalent multilingualism might have been from the few hunter-gatherer people who survive today. If you look at modern hunter-gatherers, they are almost all multilingual, says Thomas Bak, a cognitive neurologist who examines the science of speeches at the University of Edinburgh. In Australia, where more than 130 indigenous speeches are still spoken, he says, multilingualism is part of the landscape.

You will be walking and talking with person and then you might cross a small river and abruptly your companion will switch to another language. People speak the language of the Earth, says Bak. This is true elsewhere, too. Consider Belgium: you take a train in Lige, the announcements are in French first. Then, pass across Leuven, where the announcements will be in Dutch first, and then in Brussels it reverts to French.

The connection with culture and geography is why Athanasopoulos invented a new language for the snowflake exam. Component of his research lies in trying to tease out the language from the culture it is threaded within, he explains.

Ask me in English what my favourite food is and I will picture myself in London selecting from the options I enjoy there. But ask me in French and I transport myself to Paris, where the options Ill choose from are different. So the same deeply personal question gets a different answer depending on the language in which youre asking me. This idea that you gain a new personality with every language you speak is a profound one.

Athanasopoulos and his colleagues have been studying the capacity for speech to change peoples world view. In one experimentation, English and German speakers were depicted videos of people moving. English speakers focus on the action and say: A girl is walking or: A human is cycling. German speakers, on the other hand, have a more holistic opinion and will include the goal of the action: they might say( in German ): A woman walks towards her auto or: A human cycles to the supermarket.

Part of this is due to the grammatical toolkit available. Unlike German, English has the -ing objective to describe actions that are ongoing. This makes English speakers much less likely to designate a goal to an action when describing an ambiguous scene. When he tested English-German bilinguals, however, whether they were action- or goal-focused depended on the country in which they were tested. If the bilinguals were tested in Germany, the latter are goal-focused; in England, the latter are action-focused , no matter which language was used.

Thomas Bak, who believes multilingualism might once have been much more common than it is today. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod for the Guardian

In the 1960 s, one of the innovators of psycholinguistics, Susan Ervin-Tripp, tested Japanese-English bilingual females, asking them to finish sentences in each language. She found that the women ended the sentences very differently depending on which speech was use. For instance, when my wishings conflict with my family … was completed in Japanese as it is a time of great unhappiness; in English, as I do what I want. Another example was real friends should, which was completed as help one another in Japanese and be frank in English.

From this, Ervin-Tripp concluded that human believe takes place within language mindsets and that bilinguals have different mindsets for each speech, an exceptional idea but one that has been borne out in subsequent analyzes; many bilinguals say they feel like a different person when they speak their other language.

These different mindsets are continually in conflict, however, as bilingual brains sort out which language to use.

In a revealing experiment with his English-German bilingual group, Athanasopoulos got them to recite strings of numbers out loud in either German or English. This effectively blocked the other language wholly, and when they were demonstrated the videos of movement, the bilinguals descriptions were more action- or goal-focused, depending on which language had been blocked. So, if they recited numbers in German, their responses to the videos are the most typically German and goal-focused. When the number recitation was switched to the other language midway, their video responses also switched.

So are there really two separate intellects in a bilingual brain? Thats what the snowflake experimentation was designed to find out. Im a little nervous of what my fumbling performance will disclose about me, but Athanasopoulos assures me Im similar to others who have been tested and, so far, we seem to be validating his theory.

In order to assess the effect that trying to understand the Syntaflake language had on my brain, I took another test before and after the snowflake task. In these so-called flanker tasks, patterns of arrows appeared on the screen and I had to press the left or right button according to the direction of the arrow in the centre. Sometimes, the surrounding pattern of arrows was confusing, so by the end of the first session my shoulders had been hunched somewhere near my ears and I was depleted from concentrating. Its not a task in which practice improves performance( most people actually do worse second time around ), but when I did the same exam again after completing the snowflake task, I was significantly better at it, just as Athanasopoulos had predicted.

Learning the new language improved your performance second hour around, he explains. Relieved as I am to fit into the normal range, its a curious result. How can that be?

The flanker chores were workouts in cognitive conflict resolution if most of the arrows were pointing to the left, my immediate impulse was to push the left button, but this wasnt the correct response if the central arrow was pointing right. I had to block out my impulse and heed the rule instead. The part of the brain that manages this supreme endeavour is known as the anterior cingulate cortex( ACC ), part of the executive system. Situated on the frontal lobe, it is a toolbox of mental attention skills that enables the brain to concentrate on one chore while blocking out competing information and to switch focus between different chores without becoming confused.

Many countries have more than one official language. Photo: Jeff Morgan/ Alamy

The snowflake exam primed my ACC for the second flanker undertaking, just as speaking more than one language seems to train the executive system more generally. A steady stream of studies over the past decade has shown that bilinguals outperform monolinguals in a range of cognitive and social tasks, from verbal and non-verbal exams to how well they can read other people.

Bilinguals perform these tasks so much more than monolinguals they are faster and more accurate, says Athanasopoulos. And that suggests their executive systems vary between monolinguals.

Brain imaging analyzes show that when a bilingual person is speaking in one speech, their ACC is continually inhibiting the urge to use words and grammar from their other speech. Not merely that, but their intellect is always making a judgment about when and how to use the target speech. For bilinguals, with their exceptionally buff executive control, the flanker test is just a conscious version of what their brains do subconsciously the working day long its no wonder they are good at it.

A superior ability to concentrate, solve problems and focus are, of course, valuable in everyday life. But perhaps the most exciting benefit of bilingualism occurs in ageing, when executive function typically declines: bilingualism seems to protect against dementia.

Psycholinguist Ellen Bialystok stimulated the surprising discovery at York University in Toronto while she was comparing an ageing population of monolinguals and bilinguals. The bilinguals proved symptoms of Alzheimers some four to five years after monolinguals with the same disease pathology, she says.

Bialystok thinks this is because bilingualism rewires the brain and improves the executive system, boosting people cognitive reserve. It means that as parts of the brain succumb to damage, bilinguals can compensate more easily.

Bilingualism can also offer protection after brain trauma. In a recent analyze of 600 stroke survivors in India, Bak discovered that cognitive recovery was twice as likely for bilinguals as for monolinguals.

Such outcomes indicate bilingualism helps keep us mentally fit. It may even be an advantage that evolution has positively selected in our brains, an idea supported by the ease with which we learn new speeches and flip between them and by the pervasiveness of bilingualism throughout world history. Just as there is a requirement do physical exercise to maintain the health of bodies that evolved for a physically active hunter-gatherer lifestyle, perhaps we ought to start doing more cognitive exercises to maintain our mental health, especially if we only speak one language.

In recent years, there has been a backlash against studies indicating the benefits of bilingualism. Some researchers tried and failed to replicate some of the results; others questioned the added benefit of improved executive function in everyday life. Bak wrote a rejoinder to the published criticisms and says there is now overwhelming proof from psychological experiments backed by imaging analyzes that bilingual and monolingual brains function differently. He says the detractors have stimulated mistakes in their experimental methods.

English and Spanish: two of the global giants of language. Photo: John Moore/ Getty Images

Bialystok agrees, adding that it is impossible to examine whether bilingualism improves a childs school exam results, for example, because there are so many factors. But, she says, given that at the very least it builds no change and no analyze has ever proven it harms performance having regard to the very many social and cultural benefits to knowing another language, bilingualism should be encouraged.

To maintain the benefits of bilingualism you need to keep using your languages and that can be tricky, especially for older people who may not have opportunities to practise. Perhaps we need clubs where people can meet to speak other languages. Bak has done a small examine with elderly people learning Gaelic in Scotland and find significant benefits after merely one week. Now he aims to carry out a much larger trial. In the meantime, it constructs sense to talk, hablar, parler, sprechen, beszl, berbicara in as many languages as possible.

Creating new languages

Every year, humanity loses 30 -5 0 languages. Of approximately 7,000 we still have, merely 10 are used by half the worlds speakers. It seems inevitable that eventually the world will use simply one Spanish, perhaps, or Mandarin or English.

While the number of natural language has fallen, people have tried to create entirely new ones. Volapk , invented by a German priest in 1880, was one of the first endeavors at an artificial universal speech. Conferences were held in Volapk and periodicals and books were published in the language, which, at its peak, claimed thousands and thousands of speakers.

It was usurped at the end of the 19 th century by Esperanto , which was made up by a Polish Jewish opthalmologist and claims two million speakers today. Various endeavors were made to stamp out Esperanto, surely the most reliable sign of a real speech. The most aggressive assault came from the Nazis, who hated it because it had been invented by a Jew. It was taught illicitly in concentration camps, by prisoners who told guards it was Italian. In the end, however, Esperantos failure to become universal came down to the same pressures that threaten the rest: the handful of languages that are truly global.

Even as tongues succumb to extinction, new pidgin dialects word and grammar hybrids of pre-existing speeches emerge. Kiezdeutsch originated in Turkish migrant communities in Germany, but has already had become a common way of speaking for young people who otherwise have perfect German, including those with no Turkish origins. Like British teens use Jafaican ( or multicultural London English) a melange of Jamaican patois, Los Angeles rap-speak and south London slang Kiezdeutsch is strongly tied to identity and how the speakers insure themselves in society.

Meanwhile, as channels such as MTV are broadcast internationally, English speakers across Europe are modifying their accents as well as their vocabulary, so even if English ends up the one global language, it wont be the Queens English everyone is speaking.

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared on Mosaic and is republished here under a Creative Commons licence .

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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