This article is the first in a series of texts in which we aim to unravel the main advantages, misgivings and myths that surround bilingualism. The enormous number of studies and amount of literature on this subject is fairly overwhelming, so we only intend to synthesize its main aspects. Just to begin, we will present some advantages of bilingualism endorsed by recent studies which take into account the most up-to-date neurological and linguistic discoveries. The main piece of work we consulted in order to write this article can be found here; it’s a very accomplished and technical study we cannot recommend enough to those who want to have a greater insight into bilingualism. These are the main benefits it cites:
- Bilingual children learn taxonomic relationships earlier.
- Bilingual adults learn new words easier than monolingual ones do.
- Each linguistic item activates both languages in the brain of a bilingual person.
- Bilinguals are more accurate when it comes to dismissing irrelevant information, be it verbal or non-verbal.
- The risk of senile dementia might appear later in bilingual people.
- Early bilinguals —those who know two languages from childhood— are more likely to process language with both cerebral hemispheres.
- Bilinguals’ grey matter shows more density than monolinguals’ in certain areas of their left cerebral hemisphere.
But is it that important to learn a second language during childhood? Although this might seem to be a truism, there are certain detractors from this view who fear that the simultaneous acquisition of two different languages might bring about learning difficulties or delays in children (we debunk this myth in this article, written in Spanish). One of the leading experts in the language development field, the neurologist Steven Pinker, has a clear position on this issue: the earlier the better; this statement is based upon his field work with immigrants that arrived in the US when they were still very young. He followed their progress in the new language and realized that there was a correlation between language performance and the age they began their language acquisition. It is estimated, though, that the minimum exposure to a second language required for a child to be raised as a bilingual is around 20% of the time.
To sum up the main advantages of bilingualism it’s useful to focus on brain development; roughly we could group these changes in the areas of “cognitive flexibility”, meta-cognitive thinking, perception development and classificatory ability areas. This cognitive flexibility implies that, for instance, a bilingual child very early realises that, depending on the language, there are several words to name a single item, and this finding makes him or her more likely to think of alternative solutions and to be more receptive to a variety of interpretations.
When it comes to the benefits of bilingualism in adults, the aforementioned ability to more easily learn new vocabulary leads us to the fifth point: the brain exercise it involves may delay the suffering of senile dementia or, as the BBC points out in this article, you could say that “bilingualism protects the brain”. Although some deeper investigation should be carried out to know the exact implications of this, current studies —like this one, in India— show that the mental agility and speed of response is greater among older people who speak two languages than those who can express themselves in just one.
Furthermore, one of the most relevant advantages bilingualism confers is the ability to discard superfluous or redundant information; it seems that the bilingual brain has to focus on the task of discriminating between phonetically similar words and choose the most accurate one, an exercise that activates the brain areas which allow you to focus on a certain task while dismissing the background noise. The interesting thing about it is that tests have shown that bilinguals also develop this ability regarding other cognitive processes, not only linguistic ones. This article published in El País also points out that a bilingual person, thanks to his capacity to cope with interferences between languages, will also be more competent at understanding crossed conversations and several people talking at the same time.
Last but not least, monolinguals usually recur to learning strategies such as pronouncing a new word aloud to memorize it or develop mnemonic techniques, but bilinguals have no need for those to learn new vocabulary. In fact, they are able to discern mistakes and orthographic inaccuracies more effortlessly; the aptitude to recognize the same concept in two different languages gives them an advantage, given that they can distinguish their phonological differences.
We hope that this brief summary about the benefits of bilingualism has been of interest. Keep in mind that the best way to learn a new language successfully is by signing up for some of our courses. In the following article of the International House Madrid blog we will analyze some myths about bilingualism and determine to what extent they are true or not (you can read the Spanish version here). Don’t miss it!