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Are Bilinguals Smarter?

 While the answer to that question is clearly a matter of debate, one thing that researchers seem to agree on is that bilinguals can outperform their monolingual counterparts on a number of cognitive skills, including the ability to multitask. Furthermore, bilingual brains appear to be healthier and therefore better equipped to cope with diseases such as Alzheimer’s. These are additional benefits to the obvious advantages of being able to navigate between two cultures, and having broader opportunities in this competitive job market.
Ellen Bialystok, a renowned cognitive neuroscientist and Distinguished Research Professor at York University in Toronto, has devoted her career to studying the bilingual brain. She has found that in individuals who are fluent in two languages both languages are always active. Since the “executive center” – the part of the brain that plans and organizes behavior-is constantly deciding which language to use at any given moment. This serves as a form of mental exercise. Not only is the brain strengthened by being in this continuous state of alertness, but, in fact, studies have shown that the physical structure of the brain itself is reconfigured by bilingualism.
In a recent interview with The New York Times, Bialystok cited two studies conducted by her team that showed that not only do bilinguals have superior cognitive abilities as they age, but surprisingly, they also seem to fend off the onset of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s by five to six years. Although the exact mechanism by which bilingualism delays the onset of dementia is not fully understood at this time, it is possible that enhanced pathways in the bilingual brain may help compensate for some of the cognitive decay associated with Alzheimer’s. It is important to note, however, that bilingualism has not been shown to prevent Alzheimer’s in its entirety, according to Tom Schweizer, a neuroscientist at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto.
When it comes to multitasking, it seems that bilinguals also have an edge. Bialystok, along with other researchers including Judith Kroll, Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Penn State University, have found that individuals who are fluent in two languages are more efficient at prioritizing and juggling multiple projects at the same time. Kroll agrees that in bilinguals the “executive system” is always making language choices, and this ability to alternate between languages, also known as “code switching,” provides a healthy mental workout. It is believed that this readiness to call upon or suppress each language when necessary is exactly what helps to sharpen mental skills in bilinguals.
Certainly, advances in medical technology such as functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and Positron Emission Tomography (PET) have allowed scientists to actually observe the processes occurring in the brain during language tasks. According to Bialystok, neuroimaging has shown that bilinguals engage different neural systems than monolinguals to tackle problems and are actually able to solve non-verbal problems faster by using verbal networks.
Unfortunately, you won’t derive all the benefits of bilingualism just by knowing a few words in a foreign language. To begin with, you must be fluent in at least two languages, and as with all forms of exercise, you also need constant practice to see the results. The good news is that anyone can benefit from learning a second language at any age! If you’re still monolingual you may be surprised to find out that you’re indeed in the minority.
According to François Grosjean, Emeritus Professor of psycholinguistics at Neuchâtel University in Switzerland, more than half of the world’s population is bilingual. So why not give your brain a workout and your career a boost this year by learning a second or third language?
The ideas and opinions presented in this article are for informational purposes only. They are not intended as financial, legal or psychological advice.