Are bilinguals smarter than the rest?

Lately there has been an increasing amount of articles written on the subject of bilingualism. Some argue that people brought up bilingual are smarter than the rest of us. Others tell tales of hardship caused by loss of identity, loss of belonging, loss of friends. According to a recent article written by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee for The New York Times, there is enough evidence to show that

Being bilingual, it turns out, makes you smarter. It can have a profound effect on your brain, improving cognitive skills not related to language and even shielding against dementia in old age.

It’s all down to interference:

- – in a bilingual’s brain both language systems are active even when he is using only one language, thus creating situations in which one system obstructs the other.

This was previously considered a hindrance but in fact, it makes the mind work harder and thus strengthens its cognitive muscles. The bilingual brain actually improves the brain’s “executive function” which directs things like problem solving and planning. One of the processes this influences is remembering things.

According to the article, the main difference between bilinguals and monolinguals is that they have a “heightened ability to monitor their environment”:

Bilinguals have to switch languages quite often — you may talk to your father in one language and to your mother in another language,” says Albert Costa, a researcher at the University of Pompeu Fabra in Spain. “It requires keeping track of changes around you in the same way that we monitor our surroundings when driving.

This monitoring is certainly visible in our 2-year-old daughter’s everyday life. She constantly switches between her two languages, Finnish and Dutch, while talking to people. This is an extract of a conversation which took place recently:

Me: “Sanopa papalle, että kahvi on valmista. Nyt voi tulla syömään aamupalaa.”

She: “Papa, koffie klaar! Eten.”

Also, she switches between languages even within a sentence if, for example, she happens to hear her father come in:

She: “Kohta pyörällä… buiten fietsen.”

I often wonder how much she understands of the situation she’s in, that is, that she speaks two languages whereas many other people around her don’t. It does seem that she recognises the fact and says things like “papa zegt ‘baby’, äiti sanoo ‘vauva’”. She has also learned to know which relatives and friends speak which language.

When it comes to bilinguals having a good memory, I must say that our daughter seems to have an incredibly good one. When she sees a book she hasn’t seen in months, she instantly remembers what it’s about. Or, when she sees a car that resembles her Finnish grandparents’ car she’s seen only a few times in her lifetime, she always shouts “mummi pappa auto!” Also, she seems to remember everyone’s names – even if she’s only seen them in a photo – and she can connect things like berries with her Finnish grandparents.

I could be inclined to say that our daughter is a good example in proving the claims in Bhattacharjee’s article right. On the other hand, I haven’t done many comparisons, so it might as well be that this is completely normal behaviour of a two-year-old, or that this is just how she is and has nothing to do with her being bilingual. Somehow I do think though, that this constant increased brain activity makes bilinguals more active, more alert. Whether this is always a good thing, I don’t know. Our daughter seems to have her head full of things constantly and cannot sleep easily or talks in her sleep – in multiple languages. So maybe this constant language switching and monitoring your environment has such a profound effect that it can even cause restlessness. Then again, maybe it’s just how she is. Whatever the case, I think I wouldn’t go out of my way to make my child bi- or plurilingual, but if it’s possible and comes naturally (like in the case of parents with a different mother tongue), I think it’s certainly worth it.

6 thoughts on “Are bilinguals smarter than the rest?

  1. Thanks for the comment! Yes, I saw that article, too… I think trilingualism must be a huge challenge but in some cases it obviously works and has great benefits. Here is another recent example of trilingualism, and quite an effort as neither of the parents speak another language as native: http://rendezvous.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/03/19/rendezvous-always-knew-bilinguals-are-smarter/ and here a reaction to it http://parenting.blogs.nytimes.com/tag/trilingual/

  2. I wonder if it’s the same for bilingual pets? My dog certainly has a good memory with people and places and she is trained to understand German and French ;)

    • You should do some research on that! I don’t know the answer but I’m sure it could be true; as we know, dogs and small children have quite a lot in common ;)

  3. Recent studies in bilingualism and cognitive science have produced fascinating results. It has been demonstrated that babies as young as 6 months can distinguish between different languages, while knowledge of more than one language has been reported to stave off Alzheimer’s disease.

    Gone are the days when parents were told that acquiring two languages would “confuse” children and have lasting detrimental effects. Now that bilingualism is in fashion, its downsides, such as delayed lexical acquisition, are downplayed. In fact, language learning in Europe is on the rise and parents want their children in English classes as young as possible.

    Understandably so. Apart from what the author mentions, the benefits of speaking two languages in an increasingly-globalized world, a slew of studies have been cropping up singing its praises. Bilingualism in children has been linked to better meta-cognitive skills and better performance on classification tests, such as the test mentioned in the article of sorting red and blue shapes into bins of opposite colors.

    My only question is, how does all this relate to intelligence? Why does being able to sort shapes into bins more accurately mean that children are smarter? Enhanced ability to ignore distractions and switch attention from one task to another while holding information in mind is an interesting finding, but can it be equated to increased intelligence?

    This seems unfounded. It is an important step to stop calling bilinguals stupid for starting to speak later and acquiring new words at a slower rate, but should we be calling them smarter? I believe that we are jumping the gun by associating these newly-reported abilities with increased intelligence.

    Nadia El-Yousseph

  4. Pingback: Free topic: the power of languages « Deusto's Littera Media

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