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.