Bilinguals Do it Better, Longer

by Translation Guy on February 25, 2011
25 comments

Bilinguals have what it takes to hang out and hold on. They can pick up a third language faster than a monoglot can learn his second. A second tongue makes for improved dexterity the third time around. And staying power? Stay tuned….

Researchers in Israel found bilinguals found it easier to pick up that third tongue. They also found that Russian speakers had a better grasp of Hebrew than Hebrew speakers themselves. “Learning a mother tongue and preserving it does not compromise the ability to learn an additional language. The opposite is true: Knowing Russian enforces Hebrew fluency and command of both languages increases skills in English.”

Figures, right? It just figures the guy with the most languages gets a big break over your average one-time loser.  Bilinguals get all the breaks―from birth.

BC researcher Janet Werker studies babies from bilingual households. She has discovered that bilingual babies possess language superpowers at birth. Monoglots need not apply. “For example, a newborn from a monolingual household will show a preference for listening to its native language only. But a baby born into a bilingual home shows equal interest in both languages it has been exposed to in the womb.”

Bilingual infants also see languages that monolingual babies don’t.  The language you speak gives you a special look. “English speakers, for example, produce a ‘th’ sound in which they put their tongue between their teeth, while French speakers do not have this sound in their language and thus don’t produce that shape with their tongue.” Babies a few months old can spot the difference between their own language and foreign languages, but only the bilingual babies can see the differences in faces speaking languages they’ve never heard before. That kind of parsing is the key to any language acquisition.

And it gets better. Because the more languages you know, the less likely you are to get Alzheimer’s disease. “Learning a foreign language might reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s by delaying it for more than four years.”

Ellen Bialystok believes that “bilingual people develop the most common form of dementia much later than people who speak only one language.”

Speaking two languages “stimulates” the brain, which makes the mental muscle “much suppler.”

“Switching between languages is a stimulating activity―it is like carrying out brain exercises, which builds up higher levels of what we call brain or cognitive reserve. It is rather like a reserve tank in a car. When you run out of fuel, you can keep going for longer because there is a bit more in the safety tank.”

 

25 Comments

  1. Gone Native says:

    Lucky us, translators, “Switching between languages is a stimulating activity―it is like carrying out brain exercises, which builds up higher levels of what we call brain or cognitive reserve.”
    As switching between languages is what makes us earn money, we are getting paid for avoiding dementia. How is that for making a hobby into your profession?

  2. Jerome Sharp says:

    Aren’t you using just as much brain power when say, playing video games as you are when speaking?

    • Ken says:

      All I know is that I can’t do both at the same time. And gum? Forget it.

  3. Warren Paul says:

    Nice car analogy, that makes so much sense.

  4. Learning something new doesn’t make you smarter than anyone else. You’re just gaining new skills.
    It’d be like a 1st grader learning how to read..
    I think that being smart is beyond learning. It’s being able to make the right decision on critical situations (critical thinker).
    It’s being able to use your mind to be successful in any situation.
    Finally, having always on your mind “what if..?” (think b4 u act)

  5. Wayne says:

    This is so very surprising. Very cool – “Learning a mother tongue and preserving it does not compromise the ability to learn an additional language. The opposite is true: Knowing Russian enforces Hebrew fluency and command of both languages increases skills in English.”

  6. I’m learning Portuguese and it’s hard work!

  7. Edie says:

    From an academic standpoint, bilingual students have higher average scores in every subject than their monolingual counterparts. It’s possible you have an accent or your grammar is imperfect, and that leads people to misjudge you. You may find that kind of misjudgment to be an advantage in the future. All the best.

  8. Trekster says:

    I’m not sure that I buy this. How in the world can this be proven?

  9. Honey Bunch says:

    Other studies also suggest that the structure of the human brain is altered by the experience of acquiring a second language. Very interesting.

  10. ualeks says:

    Monoglot, it’s just such a dimeaning sounding word.

    • Ken says:

      ualeks, it is not my intention to demean those stinkin’ monoglots. Why some of my best friends speak only one language.

      • ualeks says:

        Yes, yes and the king is friends with all of his servants. How many languages do you speak, Ken?

        • Ken says:

          English and Japanese, basically.

  11. Bitsy says:

    The Alzheimer’s / bilingual connection is very interesting to me. It’s also very encouraging as I learn Mandarin!

  12. I wish my husband had two tongues, nevermind a third.

  13. Cowboy says:

    Is the brain actually considered a muscle?

  14. alewis says:

    Wow, this is very inspiring, thanks.

  15. Louisa says:

    I was excited Ken. Your post title was a tad misleading 😉

  16. Jean says:

    Another interesting piece of medical information from mr. translate. Where in the world do yo ufind this stuff?

  17. May says:

    A supple muscle? What kind of blog is this… 😉

    • Ken says:

      A blog for language lovers, May….

      • May says:

        That explains a lot then! :-)

  18. I am bilingual also, but perhaps you sometimes overuse the word “like”. As in “people think I am LIKE really dumb.” It is not proper grammar to insert the word “like” in that sentence.

    • Barry, I think you will find that the word LIKE has undergone considerable semantic transition, at least in everyday speech. One use is as a marker for either hesitation or emphasis (as in “Your comment on proper grammar is, like, prescriptivist”, or “My comment on semantic transition is, like, descriptivist”).
      In another example, the words “was like” have become a synonym for “said” or “thought” (as in “I was like: Wow”).
      Whether we like it or not, language change is a fact of life, and has been for donkey’s years. Some of the changes later become features of “proper grammar”, others just fall into disuse. So it remains to be seen how this extended use of “like” will be considered in fifty or a hundred years time.

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