Sunday, October 19, 2014

The General Superiority of Bilingual Brains

Economist reports:

FOR years, researchers in bilingualism have been touting striking findings about how bilingualism affects the brain. Two of the most memorable involve “executive control” and delayed dementia. With the first, bilinguals have shown that they are better able to focus on demanding mental tasks despite distractions. In other studies, it has been estimated that bilinguals see the onset of dementia, on average, about five years later than monolinguals do.

This week comes new evidence* for the pile: researchers led by Roberto Filippi of Anglia Ruskin University have found that young bilingual pupils did a better job answering tricky questions with a noisy voice in the background than a monolingual control group did. The study was small (just 40 pupils, only 20 in each group). But its robustness is helped by the diversity of the bilinguals, who spoke Italian, Spanish, Bengali, Polish, Russian and others in addition to English. The experimenters tried to distract the pupils with random unrelated recordings in English (which all the pupils spoke) and Greek (which none of them did). The bilinguals did significantly better at ignoring the Greek distraction. (They did just a bit better with the English one.)

The researchers in this line of inquiry tend to share a common hypothesis: that being bilingual is a kind of constant inhibitory mental exercise. With two languages in the mind, nearly everything has two labels (words) and nearly everything can be expressed in two different kinds of sentences (grammar). Every time a thing is named, an alternative must be suppressed. Every time a sentence is constructed, the other way of constructing it must be suppressed. Blocking out distracting information is exactly what researchers find that bilinguals do well. And as for dementia, the effect seems to be a kind of analogue to physical activity over the course of a lifetime keeping a body fit. Mental exercise keeps the brain fit, and bilingualism is just that kind of exercise.
I am not sure how this fall into the theory, buy Friedrich Hayek used to say that he thought about economics and social science theory in general in English, but thought about his personal life in German.


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