You are walking on a busy street or sitting at a café and suddenly become aware that you are eavesdropping on a conversation that is taking place in two languages at once. 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. 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.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 a upsurge of research on each of these topics. How do bilinguals juggle the two languages without making errors? What enables adult learners to acquire a second language successfully? And what are the consequences of acquiring and using two or more languages? 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.
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. 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. In this talk I illustrate the new findings on how bilinguals learn and use language in ways that change their minds and brains.
Learning second language ‘slows brain ageing’, say scientists
Antonella Sorace of the University of Edinburgh said: “Fewer parents speak minority languages to their children because of the perceived lack of usefulness. Many people still think that a minority language makes children confused and puts them at a disadvantage at school.
“These feelings clash with much research on bilingualism, which shows instead that when there are differences between monolingual and bilingual children, these are almost invariably in favour of blinguals,” Dr Sorace said.
“Bilingual children tend to have enhanced language abilities, a better understanding of others’ point of view, and more mental flexibility in dealing with complex situations,” she told the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington.
Many of the same improvements are seen in adults who speak two languages, or are learning a second language. A study of retired people doing an intensive language course of five hours a day on the Isle of Skye to learn Gaelic found improvements in other mental abilities.
“They didn’t know a word of Gaelic, so we tested them beforehand and after a week of a very intensive course. And sure enough, when we compared them with other active retired people who were doing a course on something else, we found in those who were doing a language course, the brain responds,” Dr Sorace said.
Previous research has shown that people with Alzheimer’s disease who are fluent in two languages exhibit symptoms of the condition four or five years later than people who are monolingual, and that people who are bilingual perform better in some cognitive tests.
Dr Sorace said that learning a second language should be made compulsory again in schools and even universities. “Languages should be a requirement for any kind of degree. whether people are doing classics or literature or a science degree,” she said.