Does knowing a second language make you smarter? Studies have shown that yes, bilingual people are in fact slightly smarter, and they have fewer instances of dementia later on in life. Apparently knowing a second language helps people to work out certain portions of their brain as they filter between two language systems to stay on one.
There is definitely some “interference” when one is fluent in two languages. In fact, studies have shown that both language parts of the brain are active even when only using one language to speak. However this interference helps strengthen the brain “muscles.”
This is a stark difference to how bilingualism used to be viewed. In the past it was thought that knowing and learning two languages would hinder a child’s cognitive development.
But this interference, researchers are finding out, isn’t so much a handicap as a blessing in disguise. It forces the brain to resolve internal conflict, giving the mind a workout that strengthens its cognitive muscles.
Bilinguals, for instance, seem to be more adept than monolinguals at solving certain kinds of mental puzzles. In a 2004 study by the psychologists Ellen Bialystok and Michelle Martin-Rhee, bilingual and monolingual preschoolers were asked to sort blue circles and red squares presented on a computer screen into two digital bins — one marked with a blue square and the other marked with a red circle.
In the first task, the children had to sort the shapes by color, placing blue circles in the bin marked with the blue square and red squares in the bin marked with the red circle. Both groups did this with comparable ease. Next, the children were asked to sort by shape, which was more challenging because it required placing the images in a bin marked with a conflicting color. The bilinguals were quicker at performing this task. (NY TIMES)
Apparently knowing two languages improves the “executive function” of the brain that is responsible for concentration, planning, and solving problems.
So if you have the opportunity to raise your children in a bilingual environment, then do it! It will be a blessing later in life, and will enrich their lives greatly. I know of one native English speaking family that knows a bit of Spanish that is raising two young boys. They speak to them in English as well as Spanish. They also travel to Costa Rica on a yearly basis. These children will grow up with the blessing of knowing Spanish without ever having to break a sweat studying it in a class, and this will be hugely useful to them later in life.
But can learning a new language later in life carry the same benefits? Studies say yes. Since certain languages carry representations differently, it can help enhance and work your brain. For example, English has only one word for the color “blue”. However Italian has two words to represent light blue (celeste) and dark blue (blu). Having to discern differences of this sort makes the brain work harder.
If you’re looking to learn a new language, there are many websites out there than can help you to get started. Your Language Place is a great website that features tips on learning a new language, product reviews, and even some linguistic anthropology thrown in for good measure.
It’s never to late to start learning a new language, and can be a very fun and rewarding experience.
A look back at an old ESL program at Harvard, and the methods that they pioneered:
Some of Dr. Karen Price’s students at Harvard diverge a bit from the typical Ivy League profile. Refugees and boat people mingle with foreign professionals in a common quest for fluency in English. Price, associate director for ESL research and program development at the university, finds this not daunting but challenging. “Our program is exciting because of the various socioeconomic levels, the various ages and the various educational levels,” she says. “We have such a diversity of students.”
Harvard offers both a year-round, part-time program and an intensive Summer program in ESL. Of the 500 or so students during the school year and 700 in the Summer, only 20 percent are Harvard affiliates. Most come from the surrounding community. All, however, are between the ages of 18 and 65 and are what Price calls “linguistically disadvantaged.”
To help them overcome this, she has researched and is employing a rather novel approach: video captioning. Not to be confused with subtitles–which translate what on-screen speakers are saying into a different language–captions are superimposed on video images as printed supplements to on-screen dialogue. They have commonly been used as an aid to the hearing-impaired.
Bridging the Language Gap
In 1981, Price conducted the first study ever on the potential of captioning for teaching English to non-native speakers. Captioned video materials were shown to 500 literate students from 50 countries. The study’s parameters, Price explains, were as follows: “Measures concerning viewing comprehension as well as extensive background and psycho/socio-linguistic data were oibtained for each subject.
“The effects of these variables, along with segment preference, repeated viewing and order of presentation were evaluated. The results, ” she says, “showed that all viewers, regardless of educational level or language background, benefitted significantly from captioning, even with only one viewing.”
Price attributes this to captioning’s ability to bridge the gap between language in the classroom and language in the street as well as the gap between printed language and spoken language. For example, she says, students who hear a video character say “wanna” can learn from the caption that the actual phrase is “want to.”
Subsequent to Price’s study, captioned video became a mainstay of Harvard’s ESL program and is employed in classroom, language-lab and small-group work. More than 1,500 closed-captioned videocassettes are commercially available, and at least 90 hours of network television programming per day is close-captioned.
“These programs provide the authenticity and situationality of language,” Price says, “and that’s what’s needed. Students find the tremendous variety of captioned programming provides both enjoyment and greater access to and understanding of American culture.”
Simplifying the Equipment
Originally, a decoder box was used to reveal the closed captions “invisibly” embedded in these TV shows and videocassettes. But last year, Price read in a professional journal about the Caption Master VCR from Instant Replay, Inc. of Coconut Grove, Fla.
It boasts such traditional capabilities as four-event, 14-day programming; fast scan with still and slow motion; wireless remote control; stereo sound; and electronic digital clock timer. But it also incorporates a caption decoder and can, therefore, function as a VCR, a decoder box or both.
“Caption Master eliminates the need of an external decoder box,” says Price. “It’s compact — in one piece — and very straightforward to operate.” She acquired a front-loading, four-head unit in June of ’88. With it, captions appear in white letters on black bands at the bottom of the screen, and users can switch the captions on and off at will.
The device serves to simplify and support an approach to teaching ESL that Price finds most promising. “Captioning,” she says, “can make a significant contribution to the lives of individuals struggling to develop the language and cultural skills so necessary to economic, social and professional independence.”
~Dryer, Kymberly G. “Video captioning lets Harvard ESL students read what they hear.” T H E Journal