It was that time of the year again for me to attend the next Quinn Memorial Lecture at UBC. This annual event is filled with distinguished key speakers and the 2016 version presented us with Dr. Ellen Bialystok, the Distinguished Research Professor of Psychology at York University with a lecture entitled “Lifelong Bilingualism: Reshaping Mind and Brain.”
Considering that I myself speak five languages fluently and that my son is growing up immersed in two simultaneous languages, English and Spanish, I was personally most interested in learning about the consequences and the beneficial and / or possibly harmful effects of bilingualism.
In fact, I am so dedicated to this wonderful series that I tried my utmost to battle against my own fatigue and budding migraine to physically make it to this talk. It was a busy day as I rushed quickly home to have a quick early dinner and then headed out to UBC to make it there on time.
Arriving at UBC, I was slightly at a loss vis-à-vis the recent structural changes and ongoing, seemingly everlasting constructions, and I must admit I felt a little embarrassed of temporarily not knowing my way around despite having spent more than eight years at this great university. But its face and façade have become almost unrecognizable due to the demolitions of older buildings and creations of new modern architecture, and I sincerely miss the look and feeling of my beloved university.
But let us get back to the lecture. It seemed less attended than previous talks, and I was able to seat myself firmly and visibly in the second row, which was almost empty. I awaited with keen interest the arrival of the guest speaker, and the whole lecture started surprisingly on time and included fewer opening sessions and diversions but rather jumped right into linguistic matters.
The overall theme of the talk was neuroplasticity, which refers to changes in structure and connectivity of the mind and brain. Language learning is an experience that leaves footprints on the brain and changes the efficiency and automatic processes of the mind. In fact, language learning is intense and based on the whole brain; put differently, there is no specific language switch mechanism operating in the brain turning from one language to another since languages are jointly activated.
Hence, the brain needs to select the target language, and selective attention is required for this. It is not a language switch but rather a spotlight model where the brain must focus its attention and resources or shine its light on a specific domain. This, in turn, leads to changes in some regions of the brain and strengthens and increases efficiency on certain tasks.
However, Bialystok first let us know of the disadvantages of bilingualism; they are indeed few, but there are certain limitations. The main one is a reduced linguistic representation, meaning a lack of words and vocabulary in each language. It makes sense that a person who knows only one language, a monolingual may generally have more words at their disposal than someone who is storing words and information on two or more different languages.
This reminds me of a conversation I had with a young Swiss woman years ago. Back then, I was gently bragging about my language skills when she countered to my multilingual mind that it may be so but that it also meant I could not speak any of them as well as a person who knew just one single language. To my shock and surprise, science and research is on her side, at least broadly speaking.
The second disadvantage is a lack of verbal fluency. If you are bilingual, it gets worse with multilinguals, you tend to speak more slowly as you need to focus on the given target language. This is true of myself, especially when I lack sleep AND have no coffee in the morning. It takes me slightly longer to find the appropriate expressions and sometimes words seem to elude me. In other situations, I may have the right word but in the wrong language. And occasionally I dream in all my languages and wake up rather confused and bewildered.
This is also true of my son, especially a few years back when he would speak more slowly than some of his classmates. This was due to the brain trying to locate and then process in the correct domain. However, contrary to the opinion of some monolinguals, my son very rarely confused the words and languages, and he managed that rather well without the aid of coffee.
Apart from difficulty generating words, for example on verbal fluency tests on which bilinguals tend to perform worse than monolinguals as the former do not have the same vocabulary depth, and apart from a slower retrieval of words in speaking, lifelong bilingualism is beneficial in various ways.
For instance, bilinguals generally perform better on executive function tasks as it boosts their attention system. Especially on complex memory tasks, there is more facilitation and less interference among children and older adults. A curious finding is that generally younger adults show little group difference in terms of ability; they perform about the same. Yet overall bilinguals are better at memory tasks as their executive attention is always on, and they have stronger cognition in relation to memory and attention.
Finally, Bialystok looked at older age and dementia and the corresponding effects of bilingualism. On certain tests like the Stroop effect, older bilingual adults tend to perform better. They tend to have more intact and more robust frontal and medial temporal regions, which affect attention processing as well as memory. As a result, the age of diagnosis of dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease is usually later with bilinguals.
In fact, bilinguals may get Alzheimer’s Disease but show symptoms at a later date. This is because the brain compensates for general regions due to its neural plasticity; certain parts make up for affected regions. In fact, studies in societies that consist of largely bilinguals show lower incidence of dementia. On the downside, it seems that when bilinguals end up getting Alzheimer’s, the disease tends to be in a worse and more progressive state.
As we can see, bilingualism is beneficial for the brain in many ways. It strengthens certain regions and improves focus on attention as well as performance on memory tasks. But what about multilinguals? Does it follow the adage of the more the better?
Bialystok claims that this is generally so. Learning an additional language is of definite benefit for the brain. Oddly enough, research shows that the advantages increase by language but then stop after the fourth language, after which it plateaus! So knowing a fifth language does not seem to give you any tangible benefit!
This was a very interesting lecture that focused more on statistical analysis and showed clear benefits of learning an additional language. Hopefully, it inspires people to pick up another language! Yet the talk did not address, for lack of time and scope, many other benefits that come with knowing other languages. I see languages as an important and essential tool and a powerful weapon for peace and unity.
Knowing a language gives you a glimpse into another culture and worldview and can increase your ability to understand others and empathize with them. Both these traits, understanding and empathy, are at great risk these days, and leaders around the world should not only fund and promote education but also encourage language learning and literature so that more open minds can be fostered across the world.