Hola. Ciao. Bonjour. Hallo. Hello.
It is extremely difficult to estimate how many bilingual speakers there are around the world, but the general estimate is that roughly half of the world’s population speaks at least two languages.
That being the case, there is a good chance you know someone who knows another language, or that you yourself speak a language other than English.
But did you know a bilingual person’s brain might be different from that of a monolinguist?
In this article, we take an in-depth look at the multilingual brain. First, we’ll explore how we measure language ability and how we learn languages, before delving into the differences between bilingual and monolingual brains.
HOW DO WE MEASURE LANGUAGE ABILITY?
Language ability is measured by speaking and writing, two active exercises, and listening and reading, two inherently passive exercises.
In theory, a well-balanced bilingual speaker will display an equal ability across all four of these exercises. However, that isn’t always the case.
In fact, many bilinguals and new language learners will attest that they perform better in some of these areas than others.
Many will also attest that they can understand a language better than they can speak or write using it. This is because the brain works very differently when learning/practicing actively compared to when it does so passively.
When you speak or write, you are literally trying to express yourself using a bank of information you have learned in the past.
In other words, you are essentially taking old information and using it to create new words, phrases, or sentences.
When you read or listen, however, you’re not creating information. Instead, you’re taking it in, processing it, and storing it.
Then, when you speak or write, you’ll use this information to formulate what it is you want to say.
This is like the research and writing phases of an essay or project.
During the research phase, your brain is gathering information, processing, and finally storing it.
Then, when it comes time to write or create your project, your brain is forced to use this backlog of information to create something new.
TYPES OF BILINGUALISM
Language specialists generally agree that there are three main types of bilinguals:
- Compound bilinguals: These are people who learn two languages using only a single set of concepts. For example, a small child who emigrates to another country at a young age and is forced to learn both their mother and the second language with the same level of knowledge.
- Coordinate bilinguals: These are individuals who learn two languages using two sets of concepts. For example, older children (like teenagers) who emigrate to a new country and learn a second language at school while continuing to speak their native language at home or with friends.
- Subordinate bilinguals: Subordinate bilinguals are people who learn a second language by first filtering it through their native tongue. Adults who move to a new country and learn a new language with a full understanding of their mother language, for example, are subordinate bilinguals.
HOW DO WE LEARN A LANGUAGE?
Seeing as language ability is measured by speaking, listening, reading, and writing, the way we learn seems obvious.
First, we learn to recognize sounds/words and what they represent, then we begin practicing and utilizing those sounds to express ourselves.
Neuroscientists are fascinated by the art of learning language, especially in babies. And research in these fields shows that learning a language is actually far more complicated than it seems.
Neuroscientists and language experts agree that there is a critical period for language learning. This is a period in which our ability to learn new languages is at its highest. Unfortunately, the critical period usually lies between birth and 7 years of age.
From then on out, it becomes increasingly difficult for us to learn new languages and, by puberty, the ease of doing so decreases exponentially.
But why is this?
THE CRITICAL PERIOD FOR LANGUAGE LEARNING
In a 2010 speech at TedX in Seattle, Washington, Patricia Kuhl, Professor of Speech and Hearing Sciences at the University of Washington, explored the phenomenon of this critical period.
In her research, Prof. Kuhl looks at the periods when babies try to master the sounds they hear in their language.
Her research confirms that babies are exceptionally good at identifying changing sounds in their language. More importantly, they can do so across the board with all kinds of languages.
Adults, however, can’t. While they can easily identify changing sounds in their own languages, they struggle to do so in foreign ones.
Prof. Kuhl’s research shows that a baby’s critical period is somewhere between the ages 6-8 months, at which point they’re actively taking “statistics” on the sounds of the particular language they’re exposed to.
As we get older, we no longer do this. Instead, we are restricted by memories that taught us to recognize specific sounds and interpret them.
As we get older, it seems, it becomes harder for us to take in new information and process it to create something new in a foreign tongue.
Once again, Prof. Kuhl’s research confirms this.
Kuhl’s researchers took American babies who had never heard a second language and exposed them to Mandarin by having the babies interact with native Mandarin speakers.
Her research showed that the babies were able to identify different sounds in the language just like they could with English.
In fact, her studies showed that after only two months, the American babies were as capable of identifying different Mandarin sounds as babies natively exposed to Mandarin.
LANGUAGE LEARNING: A SOCIAL EXERCISE
One final aspect of Prof. Kuhl’s research that really reinvented our understanding of language learning is this:
“Learning a language is a social exercise.”
Prof. Kuhl took the same experiment mentioned earlier and changed one factor. Rather than exposing American babies to Mandarin via a person, she exposed babies to Mandarin using television and other forms of audio.
Both sets of babies made zero progress identifying Mandarin sounds, while those babies who were exposed to the language in person made huge improvements.
What this suggests is that there is a unique social aspect to learning a language, especially during the critical period.
BENEFITS OF THE MULTILINGUAL BRAIN
Today, it is very common to admire bilingualism. However, that wasn’t always the case.
In fact, before the 1960s, bilingualism was thought of as a handicap, slowing a child’s development by forcing them to distinguish between the languages it is learning.
However, that is no longer the case.
Today, studies have shown that the effort and attention needed to switch between languages literally results in more brain activity.
In other words, a bilingual child activates more parts of its brain when using two languages simultaneously.
One of the main parts of the brain used to actively switch and use language is the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for managing executive functions like problem-solving, focusing, and switching between tasks.
The extra brain activity bilinguals experience has been linked to a higher density of grey matter (which contains most of the brain’s neurons and synapses), and possibly even the delayed onset of diseases like Alzheimer’s and Dementia.
There you have it; a detailed look at the bilingual brain and how learning languages can actually increase your brain activity.
If you already speak another language, good on you; if you don’t, it’s never too late to learn.
Given the benefits, now might be a good time to go out on a limb and try your hand at a new language.