Bilingualism: What happens in the brain?

According to this article, bilingualism is on the rise in the United States. Between 2009 and 2013, the number of people over the age of 5 that speak a language other than English at home (20.7 percent) has more than doubled since 1980, where it was at 9.6 percent. With the rising number for bilingual people, there also comes an increase in research into the science of this skill. Questions that come up are: “Do the brains of bilinguals differ from those of monolinguals?” “And do bilinguals have the edge over monolinguals when it comes to cognitive functioning and learning new languages? “. The author of this article sought out to answer some of these questions.

The author, Yella Hewings-Martin PhD gives examples of dispelling myths; one of those being that mixing languages holds bilingual children back from learning both languages. However, children do not lag behind monolinguals when it comes to language development. In fact, according to Hewings-Martin, children are capable of developing vocabulary in two languages without being confused. When they do mix words from different languages in once sentence, this is known as code-switching and it is not because children cannot tell which word belongs to which language.

According to the author, once a bilingual person hears words in one language, the other language is also activated. Scientists believe that the brains of bilinguals adapt to the constant conversation of two languages, and this is how their brains are different than those of monolinguals. The author pulls together a series of studies and on going investigations into the benefits of bilingualism. Research gathered shows that different areas of the brain are needed to cope with phonological competition from within the same language, compared with between language competition.  Since there is competition between the two languages, bilinguals require additional frontal control and in subcortical regions.

Another benefit stated through research from the author, indicates attributes to cognitive health since attention control is a central aspect of cognitive health that tends to decline with age, however, boots in the attention systems through bilingualism have potential to sustain cognitive function in older age. This is developed through the ongoing used of attention needed to manage selection between two jointly-activated languages. Task switching was also addressed in the article because research results done in one study indicated that bilinguals were faster at disengaging their attention from one trial so that they could focus on the next trial when a different response was required.

Finally, in the last piece of evidence presented by the author, it has to do with electroencephalogram analysis and how researchers found a clear difference in the brain waves of both monolingual and bilingual students when listening to sentences in the language chosen for the study: Brocato2. This small study indicated that there was novel brain-based data point towards a distinct language-learning benefit for people who grew up bilingual. Over all the research done by the author reaffirms the importance of bilingualism of all kinds of languages as well as the differences in those who and bilingual compared to those who are not.

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