In the beginning of the 20th century, bilingualism was frowned upon by most of the occidental world. Scientists often wrote disparagingly of the bilingual brain. The brains of bilingual children were easily confused, they wrote. They attributed the bad academic performance to bilingualism. Without a doubt, most of these studies were based on methodologies which have been repudiated in recent times and the samples were often biased- the researchers and scientists often used children from poor, illiterate, immigrant families to promulgate the ideology of their times. Hence most of the research against bilingualism was bogus!
THE BILINGUAL MILLENNIUM
However, over the last three decades or so, bilingualism has received a lot of positive press and now scientific opinion is pretty much uniform on the understanding that the bilingual brain definitely does better on many parameters than the monolingual one. By observing children in controlled environments, it has now been proved that a brain which is used to switching between languages helps the child reinforce attention selectively on a task, despite the distractions with which one might try to impede the execution of the task.
This ability of the bilingual brain springs from its capacity to inhibit one language circuit in favor of the other, on a regular basis.
GOOD FOR THE YOUNG. GREAT FOR THE OLD.
In a paper published in 2016, scientists from the University of Concordia spoke of an experiment where the vocabulary of children (both bilingual and monolingual) between 24 and 31 months was measured. They observed the efficiency with which children executed tasks where contradictory instructions were given. For example, put big cubes in a small basket and small cubes in a big basket, after having just done the inverse. Needless to say, bilingual children did the tasks better. Also, children who knew more words for an object in two or more languages were even more efficient than the rest.
Such experiments also gave positive results when carried out on older people. In a study in Montreal, a set of people above 65 years of age were asked to press on a button on the left if a blue box appeared and a button on the right if a red one appeared. When the order of appearance was reversed it was not that the bilingual persons fared better in the task than the others. However, when their brains were observed through neuroimaging, the bilingual brain seemed to be carrying out the tasks with far greater optimization. The fact that the bilingual brain used fewer neuronal circuits in the brain, by optimizing the usage of the brain for a task, is in stark contrast with a normal brain that needs far more regions of the brain to execute a task. This could be a huge advantage in old age when we start losing both white and grey matter, as the bilingual brain can circumvent regions of the brain that have been damaged either by old age or diseases like dementia.
START YOUNG. STAY YOUNG.
This is perhaps why the onset of Alzheimer’s disease has seen to be delayed by at least 5 years in bilingual people, as demonstrated by a study in India in 2013. When we learn a language later in life, there is a sudden increase in grey matter due to the intense stimulation of certain regions of the brain. This might help the bilingual brain conserve both white and grey matter as we grow older.
It also seems to be useful to start young the process of learning another language. This seems to impact positively the capacity to memorize. When university students were asked to learn a set of nonsense words and repeat them in the inverse, not only did the bilingual ones do it better, but, the students who had learned two languages simultaneously between the age of 4 and 15, excelled at it. But do remember that the idea of bilingualism being beneficial works only when you put it in use- that is through the process of communication. It is critical to keep working those circuits to communicate. And that perhaps is also the joy of knowing more than one language!