Most of us think that being bilingual means being special. In fact, bilingualism is not something exceptional. More than half of the world is bilingual. But some time ago bilingualism was considered a deviation from the norm, which was monolingualism.
It attracted a lot of attention from researchers who found that knowing several languages gives cognitive advantages to their speaker, for example, bigger working memory capacity. A study conducted at a Florida nursing home found that bilinguals were five times less likely to develop Alzheimer’s than monolinguals.
Another study shows that as early as at the age of seven months children growing up in a bilingual family tend to quicker adapt to changing situations than their monolingual peers. Three groups of children took part in this study: from Italian, Slovenian, and Italian-Slovenian families. First, the children were shown a toy on the right side, when they got used to it, the toy was transferred to the left side. The bilingual children immediately shifted their gaze to the left, while the children from the other two groups continued to look to the right and slowly rearranged themselves.
Now there is no doubt that a bilingual brain is different, but the question arises: why?
One of the most likely causes has to do with the executive function of our brain, which is responsible for attention and planning. For example, when you are driving a car, you put in a lot of effort to focus on the road and not on what is going on around you. Similarly, when you speak two or more languages, a lot of energy goes into suppressing one of the languages while you speak the other. Therefore, the brain of bilinguals is trained to concentrate on the task/action and quickly switch between them.
Of course, bilingualism is heterogeneous, but at the moment it is known that:
– for cognitive processes there is no difference whether you speak 2 or 3 languages;
– the order of the introduction of languages in childhood is unimportant: simultaneously or sequentially. Although bilingual children may have less vocabulary because the child receives less input in each language, by age 5 this difference levels off. Much more important is the amount of input in each of the languages;
– literacy plays a secondary role, and cognitive advantages are retained.
Of course, bilingualism also has its drawbacks. First of all, a smaller vocabulary size because instead of communicating all the time in one language, a child switches between several.
One of the most common questions about bilingualism is: how to talk to children? Until recently, the idea of “one person, one language” was popular. However, this is difficult to observe, and a clear separation is possible only in an ideal world. It is much more important to have as much “immersion” in each of the languages as possible while considering the language of the country of residence. For example, bilinguals (English/Finnish) from the United States who spent every summer in Finland had much stronger Finnish than those who did not travel to their homeland.
*from an interview with Maria Polinsky (Professor at the University of Maryland, USA)