A bilingual brain works like a traffic light. When it needs to choose, say, a Spanish word, it gives the green light for that language to move forward, and uses a red light to halt the term in English. This natural selection process, carried out hundreds of times every day, gives the brain a continual workout.
The effects on the brain of being able to speak two languages fluently have been the subject of continual and intense analysis within a range of disciplines over recent years. Some research suggests that speaking two languages helps prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s or senile dementia.
Two US teams are now studying the advantages that speaking a second language can give us in our everyday lives. “Bilingual brains are better equipped to process information,” says Professor Viorica Marian, a psychologist based at the Evanston campus of Northwestern University, Illinois, who has just published the results of her findings in the journal Brain and Language.
Meanwhile, the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences, in Seattle, is working along similar lines in partnership with the Madrid regional government’s education department, and will be undertaking a study at several schools in the Spanish capital next year to assess the way infants under the age of three learn languages.
Both teams are focusing on the parts of the brain that speakers of one language activate, compared with those set in motion by fluent speakers of two or more languages. The study carried out by Dr. Marian of Northwestern was on individuals aged between 18 and 27 chosen by the University of Houston. Of these, 17 were bilingual in Spanish and English, while the remainder spoke only English. “We chose those languages because that form of bilingualism is more common in Texas, although we suppose the results would be similar for other languages,” says Marian.
The research, carried out over three years, was based on a simple experiment. After hearing a word in English, read by a man with a neutral accent, members of both groups were shown a drawing with four objects: two that were pronounced similarly in English, and another two that sounded totally different. For example: clown and cloud; candy and candle; or pig and picture. While the participants decided which was the correct term, the team looked at their brains’ behavior using magnetic resonance imaging.
The more oxygen and blood that flowed to the area of the brain involved, the more work was being carried out in that part of the brain. The inhibitory control areas were more active in the case of those who only spoke one language, as opposed to the bilinguals: “The monolinguals had to work harder to come up with the answers,” says Marian.
So what advantages do bilinguals enjoy? Professor Marian says children who can speak two languages fluently are able to concentrate better, a facility that stays with them throughout their lives: “If you are driving, or performing surgery, it’s important to be able to focus on what you’re doing and cut out extraneous noise,” she explains.
The Seattle-based researchers, led by Patricia K. Kuhl and Andrew N. Meltzoff, are also looking into the brain activity of their own children, all of whom are bilingual. “The brain of somebody who speaks two languages is much more flexible, it’s more used to complexity, and so looks for the best solutions and as a result ends up more agile,” says Kuhl, who along with Meltzoff, was in Madrid at the end of September to visit several of the city’s bilingual schools.
Most of Spain’s regions are now moving toward a bilingual, English-Spanish education system. Earlier in the year, a Spanish delegation comprising, among others, Education, Culture and Sport Minister José Ignacio Wert, along with secretary of state for education Montserrat Gomendio and Lucía Figar, the head of the Madrid regional government’s education department, was in Seattle to visit the project.
Kuhl and Meltzoff have presented their research to the US Congress: “Our findings should help society to overcome its fear that a child who grows up with two languages does so at the expense of their maternal tongue, and also that this has a negative impact on other studies,” says Meltzoff.