The Language Of More Than One

A recent study has concluded that speaking more than one language can bolster the brain, serving as a “mental gymnasium” of sorts. The same study found that bilingual speakers often outperform monolinguals (people who speak only one language) in certain mental acumen evaluations, such as eliminating irrelevant information from a conversation and focusing on matters of importance. These same skills make bilinguals better at prioritizing tasks as well as multitasking.

“We would probably refer to most of these cognitive advantages as multi-tasking,” said Judith Kroll, Director of the Center for Language Science at Penn State University. “Bilinguals seem to be better at this type of perspective taking. The received wisdom was that bilingualism created confusion, especially in children,” Kroll told attendees at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C. “The belief was that people who could speak two or more languages had difficulty using either. The bottom line is that bilingualism is good for you.”

Researchers trace the source of these enhanced multi-tasking skills to the way bilinguals mentally negotiate between the languages, a skill that Kroll refers to as mental juggling. Bilinguals often slip in and out of both languages, carefully choosing the word or phrase from one language that best articulates their thoughts. At the same time, however, fluent bilinguals rarely slip into another language by accident when they converse with someone who understands only one language.

Kroll continued: “The important thing that we have found is that both languages are open for bilinguals; in other words, there are alternatives available in both languages. Even though language choices may be on the tip of their tongue, bilinguals rarely make a wrong choice.”

Kroll noted that these enhanced skills of bilinguals do not necessarily make them more intelligent or event better learners. “Bilinguals simply acquire specific types of expertise that help them attend to critical tasks and ignore irrelevant information.” Kroll compared the process of language selection to a form of mental exercise. “The bilingual is somehow able to negotiate between the competition of the languages. The speculation is that these cognitive skills come from this juggling of languages.”