Bilingualism boosts Cognitive Function says TED-ed lesson

In newly-uploaded TED-Ed lesson titled, The benefits of a bilingual brain, educator Mia Nacamulli teaches how language learning can boost brain health.

The video lesson highlight the the three types of bilingual brains that exist and how attitudes to bilingualism have devloped over time. In the 1960s, the lesson states, bilingualism was seen as a ‘handicap’ that could hamper a child’s development but now we know the exact opposite is true. Even where budding bilinguals could sometimes show a delay in response times in language tests the extra mental effort stimulation the ‘dorsolateral prefrontal cortex’, the part of the brain that plays a large role in executive function, problem solving, task switching and focussing while filtering out irrelevant information.

There are differences bilingual brain that can be analysed using brain imaging technology. Language processing involves functions of both the brain’s left hemisphere (dominant and analytical in logical processes) and right hemisphere (active in emotional and social processes). The ‘critical period hypothesis’ suggests people who learned a second language early in life have a holistic grasp of its social and emotional contexts and those who learn another language in adulthood show less of an emotional bias and a more rational approach.

Bilingualism can maintain the health of people of all ages.

Bilingualism can maintain the health of people of all ages.

‘While a balanced bilingual has near equal abilities across the board in two languages, most bilinguals around the world know and use their languages in varying proportions,’ says Nacamulli.

Bilingualism therefore is much more than something that makes traveling of business easier, or something that enables access to a wider range of culture bit plays a big role in brain health.

Bilingual people can be classified into three general types of brains:

  • compound bilingual
  • coordinate bilingual
  • subordinate bilingual

Compound bilinguals developed two linguistic codes simultaneously. For instances, learning English and Spanish has you begin to process the world in a bilingual environment.

Coordinate bilinguals juggle two sets of concepts. For example, learning English at school while speaking their native tongue at home or with family.

Subordinate bilinguals learn a secondary language by filtering it through their primary language.

Whichever category someone falls into, a bilingual brain contains a higher density of gray matter, which contains most of the brain’s neurons and synapses. Using a second language also leads to more activity in certain brain regions, giving it ‘excercise’. The TED-Ed video suggests this can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia.

A 2014 study published in the journal Brain and Language found people who speak more than one language are better at filtering out unnecessary words than monolinguals. The brains of those who only knew one language had to work harder to complete the same mental tasks. The researchers believe this is because being bilingual is a constant brain exercise.

‘Bilingualism may not necessarily make you smarter,’ states the lesson, ‘but it can keep your brain healthy and active.’

So whether you are a lifelong bilingual or an adult language learner, there are plenty of health benefits.

Bilingualism increases mental agility says new research

A large amount of scientific data points to the benefits of growing up bilingual and fresh research from the University of Strathclyde, Scotland reinforces this view.

The study, published in the Journal of Bilingualism, found that bilingual children outperform monolingual children in problem-solving skills and creative thinking. Researchers examined primary school pupils who spoke English or Italian, half of whom also spoke Gaelic or Sardinian, and found that bilingual children were significantly more successful in tasks set for them.

A total of 121 children around the age of 9 in Scotland and Sardinia, 62 of them bilingual, were given tasks where they need to reproduce patterns of coloured blocks, repeat a series of numbers, to give definitions of words and resolve mentally a set of arithmetic problems. Tasks were all set in English or Italian.

New research suggest bilingualism benefits mental agility.

New research suggest bilingualism benefits mental agility.

Differences in performance between the groups were linked to the mental alertness required to switch between languages, which could develop skills useful in other types of thinking. The Gaelic-speaking children were even more successful than their Sardinian counterparts, which may have been due to the formal teaching of the language and literature. Sardinian is not widely taught in schools.

Dr Fraser Lauchlan, of Strathclyde’s School of Psychological Sciences & Health, led the research. He said: “Bilingualism is now largely seen as being beneficial to children but there remains a view that it can be confusing, and so potentially detrimental to them.

“Our study has found that it can have demonstrable benefits, not only in language but in arithmetic, problem solving and enabling children to think creatively. We also assessed the children’s vocabulary, not so much for their knowledge of words as their understanding of them. Again, there was a marked difference in the level of detail and richness in description from the bilingual pupils.

“We also found they had an aptitude for selective attention- the ability to identify and focus on information which is important, while filtering out what is not- which could come from the ‘code-switching’ of thinking in two different languages.”