Cognitive Advantages of Bilingualism

Harvard Prof. Maria Polinsky on introducing two languages, the importance of literacy and advantages of bilingual individuals

videos | June 22, 2015

What are the known benefits of being bilingual? Is it more beneficial to speak three languages as opposed to two? What are the possible negative affects of being raised bilingual? Professor of Linguistics at Harvard University, Maria Polinsky, explains arguments for raising bilingual children.

It’s very common to assume when people talk about language that everyone speaks a particular language and speaks it well. This assumption comes from large countries with large dominant languages like English in the United States, or Russian in Russia, or Chinese or Mandarin in China. So in a large country everyone supposed to learn the large language and if they don’t – it’s problem. But if you think more deeply and if you look at the history of human society so in fact much more common for people to speak two or more languages. If we look at that from that angle, we realize that monolingualism when someone speaks only one language and uses it most of the time is more of an aberration rather than the norm. So in a way, the way sociology and linguistics have positioned themselves is looking at the aberration and treating it as the norm.

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So obviously, it’s important to think about what are the consequences of bilingualism. And lately there’s been a lot of new research which shows that bilingualism gives people significant cognitive advantages. So let me give you two examples. One has to do with the recent study, which was done in Florida. Florida is of course where everybody goes when they turn 70, so there are lot of really old people in Florida. And lot of these people live in assisted living and nursing homes. There was a study, which they did in one of the nursing homes, where they looked at about 800 subjects asking whether or not they grew up bilingual. And they discovered that the likelihood of having Alzheimer’s is five times less in people who grew up bilingual than in monolinguals. So it’s not a bad result especially now that everyone is trying to live longer. And they’ve figured out how to deal with heart disease and cancer so we might all end up in the nursing home. And that’s not a bad thing not to have Alzheimer’s.

Another example comes from the other end of life and has to do with what’s called wonder babies. This was a study which was done a few years ago in Trieste which is basically at the border on Slovenia and Italy. So there are a lot of Italians and there are a lot of Slovenians and there are of course a lot of mixed marriages. What they did was they took three groups of babies, all babies were seven months old so there were a bunch of Italian speaking babies, bunch of Slovenian speaking babies and a bunch of Italian-Slovenian babies from mixed families. They showed those babies various puppets and then they switched the situation. Typically when the seven-month-old baby is used to particular setting and the situation switches it takes them a little while to regroup. So turned out that seven-month-old Italian and seven-month-old Slovenian babies would get used to the puppet appearing on the right, and then when the puppet would appear on the left they would continue looking to the right as if nothing had changed. Whereas the bilingual babies very quickly would turn their head and notice that the puppet has changed its position. Again, an indication that all other factors being equal there was something that made those babies more advantageous. These were just a couple of examples indicating that people do really improve when they speak more than one language specially if that happens from birth or at least in the first five years of life. It doesn’t mean that everyone has to drop everything and if you’re fifty one-years-old start learning a new language that will help only marginally. But if you were born in a situation where two or more languages are spoken or there are languages that you’re exposed to as a child that certainly gives you an advantage.

The question is why. I’m gonna give you one of the possible hypothesis which is very rapidly being explored in different fields these days.

The idea is that the control of languages has to do with what’s called executive control, which is your portion of cognition that is responsible for attention and the distribution of tasks.

So let’s say if you’re driving a car you spend a lot of your energy and a lot of your memory resources into looking at the road and ignoring what’s happening around. The reason we don’t wanna text when we’re driving is that this will distract us from keeping attention on the road. A lot of an energy spent on not paying attention to things, which are not related to our driving. Likewise, when you have two languages or more represented in your brain when you speak one a lot of your energy and a lot of your memory resources going to suppressing the other language, which is constantly present in your cognition. Precisely because you’re so experienced as a bilingual to monolingual speaker at suppressing the other languages in your representation your executive control is better. And the way you exercise it way more than a monolingual speaker does, and that leads to significant cognitive advantage.

Obviously, there are different shades of bilingualism, multilingualism and so; once we discover that they are cognitively advantageous there are all kinds of questions that people ask. One of the questions is whether or not it’s better to speak three languages than two. At present we don’t see any significant advantage in the presence of three languages as opposed to two. Another question has to do with whether or not it’s better to introduce two languages sequentially or simultaneously. People have been long worried about raising bilingual children because they worry is that bilingual children have smaller vocabularies in each language than monolingual children. And that’s kind of obvious because there are 18 waking hours in a day, let’s say, nine hours you hear language X, the other nine hours you hear language Y, so of course you’ll hear half of the information that you would hear if you were just a monolingual speaker.

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Up to age 5 we do find that bilingual children have smaller vocabularies in each of those languages but eventually they catch up. So I don’t think that this would be a significant worry because this is not something that is gonna last. So it’s important to just keep doing that. The arguments for sequential bilingualism as opposed to simultaneous bilingualism are not terribly serious. It looks like simultaneous bilinguals are better at certain tasks compared to sequential bilinguals, but sequential bilinguals are better at other tasks. So the jury is still out as to which those two is better. What matters is the amount of exposure and not the order in which the languages were introduced.

And then finally people often worry about the role of literacy in bilingualism and multilingualism saying that, you know, what’s the point of learning a language which doesn’t have literacy. Let’s say if you are a speaker of Hmong living in the United States, and there is a large Hmong community in Minnesota, the Hmong kinda looked down up on their language because they don’t see what’s the use of it as there is no huge literature and in English of course you’ve got everything from Shakespeare to Quentin Tarantino and you wanna use all that. But literacy is secondary to language and there are millions and millions of speakers who speak languages with no literacy or with just the oral tradition and they still have significant knowledge and significant cognitive advantages.

The presence or absence of literacy in a particular language is not a deciding factor in determining whether or not you want to raise your child bilingual or monolingual. The disadvantages have to do first with the smaller vocabularies, which show up in the beginning and like I said that usually catches up around age 5. The other disadvantage may have to do with the unequal distribution of languages. One language is significantly weaker than the other you will see that there will be some kind of transfer or interference from the stronger language to the weaker language. So these are probably the two main factors that people bring up.

One on the big issues in understanding bilingualism is what the input should be for bilingual or multilingual speakers. For example, if a child grows up in a family where mom speaks language X and dad speaks language Y, should they all be speaking X or should all be speaking Y – should it be “one parent, one language”. Until recently they really had been “one parent, one language”. So if your mom speaks Chinese and your dad speaks English the mom should only speak English the dad should only speak Chinese. That’s a really difficult model to follow up on and it only happens in an ideal world. Basically the notion that we followed lately is that it’s just good to have as much exposure to a particular language as possible. Then the question is of course, whether or not there should be language X spoken in the family and language Y spoken in the society. And this is where again the importance is in the input.

The reason that we have many minority languages whose speakers start losing them is that the societal pressures are much stronger than the pressures of the family.

So the family can just increase a lot of input by taking a person to the country where this language is spoken as the main language. This is the best. There was a very nice study on Finnish spoken in the United States by Helena Halmari who noted that people who grew up in the United States speaking Finnish in the family but did go to Finland every summer were much stronger in their Finnish than people who only learned Finnish in the family and were exposed to English. So basically the crucial word is i.n.p.u.t., input, and that’s what matters.

I don’t need to convince myself bilingualism was important but I think we still have a lot of work to do in the general public convincing people that bilingualism is the way of life. There are a lot of issues here, some of them are economic issues because bilingual programs, bilingual education costs money and when the money is tight it’s always hard. It’s also something that varies from country to country. Living in a large country and very used to the model that everyone has to speak English and this is the way of life and English is of course the language that everyone wants to learn. If you go to smaller countries like Switzerland or the Czech Republic bilingualism is more of the norm. So my hope is that both linguistic research and educational policies will lead to the whole world becoming one big Switzerland rather than the whole world becoming one big United States or Russia.

Professor, Department of Linguistics, Harvard University
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