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A second language: how the brain benefits from bilingualism

Those Lino Lakes officials who voted last summer to make sure that all city documents are printed only in English might want to rethink that action.

In fact, they might want to enroll all the town’s kids into bilingual classes tout de suite.

For, as Pulitzer-prize-winning author (“Guns, Germs and Steel”) and geography professor (University of California, Los Angeles) Jared Diamond notes in an article published Thursday in Science magazine, the ability to understand and speak more than one language appears to offer some rather impressive lifelong benefits to the brain.

“Recent studies,” he writes, “show that children raised bilingually develop a specific type of cognitive benefit during infancy, and that bilingualism offers some protection against symptoms of Alzheimer’s dementia in old people.”

First, the cognitive benefit for kids: Children who are multilingual undergo constant (and unconscious) practice in using their brain’s executive function system (a kind of centralized set of mental skills that help us plan, make decisions, organize, pay attention and perform other “higher-level” cognitive tasks).

“Multilingual people have a special challenge involving executive function,” writes Diamond. “Monolinguals hearing a word need only compare it with their single stock of arbitrary phoneme (sound) and meaning rules, and when uttering a word they draw it from that single stock. But multilinguals must keep several stocks separate.”

This need to “switch frequently and unpredictably between their stocks of phoneme/meaning rules” may explain, says Diamond, why tests designed to assess executive function in the brain have found that bilingual people have much less difficulty than monolinguals at performing game-like tasks when the rules are changed.

“If bilinguals’ advantage over monolinguals in these games also applies to real-life situations, that could be useful for bilinguals,” says Diamond, for it would mean that bilinguals are better at “negotiating our confusing world of changing rules.”

As for protecting against Alzheimer’s, Diamond mentions a 2007 Canadian study that found an association between bilingualism and a delay in the onset of Alzheimer’s disease symptoms — an average delay of four to five years, in fact.

“How might this be?” asks Diamond. “A short answer is the aphorism, ‘Use it or lose it.’ Exercising body systems improves their function; not exercising them lets their function deteriorate. That’s why athletes and musicians practice. It’s also why Alzheimer’s patients are encouraged to play brain-challenging games like bridge or to solve Sudoku puzzles. But bilingualism is arguably the most constant practice possible for the brain. Whereas even a Sudoku fanatic can spend only a fraction of a day on Sudoku puzzles, bilinguals impose extra exercise on their brain every minute of their waking hours. Consciously or unconsciously, the bilingual brain constantly has to decide: Shall I think, speak, or interpret sounds spoken to me according to the arbitrary rules of language A, or language B?”

Like I said, supporters of English-only policies may want to reconsider their stance on the issue — and sign up for some language classes at their local community center.


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