science

Being bilingual changes the way the brain works, expert reveals

by Ray Clancy on March 22, 2016

Expat parents can often be amazed how quickly their children pick up a second language and confused when they frequently switch from one to the other with apparent easy.

But they should not be surprised, according to one of the leading experts on bilingualism, who says that people who are bilingual use and learn language in ways that change their minds and brains.

Both languages are active in a person’s brain and they are able to speak in whichever language they need and rarely speak in the “wrong” language, according to Judith Kroll, a professor of psychology and linguistics at Penn State University in the United States.

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“Recent studies reveal the remarkable ways in which bilingualism changes the brain networks that enable skilled cognition, support fluent language performance and facilitate new learning,” she told the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

She explained that just as humans are not all the same, bilinguals are not all the same and the changes in the mind and brain differ depending on how the individual learned the language, what the two languages are and the context the languages are used in.

“What we know from recent research is that at every level of language processing, from words to grammar to speech, we see the presence of cross-language interaction and competition,” she pointed out.

“Sometimes we see these cross-language interactions in behaviour, but sometimes we only see them in brain data,” she added.

She also explained that the consequences of bilingualism are not limited to language but reflect a reorganization of brain networks that hold implications for the ways in which bilinguals negotiate cognitive competition more generally.

So, if you speak two languages and have ever found this task to be difficult it’s because both languages are always switched on in the brain.

She gave as an example two people having a conversation in Spanish and in English. Sentences may start in English and then switch to Spanish and then back to English again. “If you are a bilingual speaker of Spanish and English this may come as no surprise but if you are a monolingual speaker of one of these languages alone, you may wonder how the speakers are able to move so easily from one language to the other,” said Kroll.

“Not only can these bilingual speakers switch from one language to the other but they can understand each other and they rarely make errors of speaking the wrong language,” she added.

She also said that although proficient bilinguals are impressively skilled, many adults find it difficult to acquire a second language past early childhood. In the last decade there has been an upsurge of research on each of these topics.

“What we have learned is that even skilled bilinguals cannot easily turn off one of the two languages. Instead, both languages are active and the exchange between them changes not only the second language, but also the native language,” Kroll explained.

“Far from the concern that the use of two languages might impose excessive demands on the minds and brains of bilinguals or create problems for young learners, recent studies reveal the remarkable ways in which bilingualism changes the brain networks that enable skilled cognition, support fluent language performance, and facilitate new learning. The new research also shows that these changes to the mind and the brain are not simple,” she pointed out.

She added that bilingualism takes different forms that depend on an individual’s learning history, on the two languages themselves, and on the contexts in which the two languages are used. “The consequences that result reflect that complexity,” she concluded.

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