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Bilinguals Do it Better, Longer
February 25, 2011 - By: - In: Language - 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.”


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