a, Science & Technology

Bilinguals get a boost

A recent study conducted at Anglia Ruskin University in the U.K. has once again demonstrated the benefits of bilingualism.

Bilingual children of various languages (Polish, Russian, French, and Italian) with English as their primary language, were able to maintain better focus on a task in a noisy environment. When the bilingual primary school children were evaluated on sentence structure recognition in English, background noise—from Greek and English recordings—was played, and the scores of the children’s results measured.

The results demonstrated a significant advantage when Greek—a language none of the children spoke—was played. However, when English was played, children who spoke more than one language exhibited only slightly better selective attention.

Linguists believe this might be due to executive control in the cerebral cortex. Since bilinguals have two names for everything, the constant inhibition of one language and the simultaneous activation of the other forces the brain to be constantly working. As a result, those who speak more than one language tend to be better at focusing.

Dr. Fred H. Genesee, from McGill’s Department of Linguistics, researches bilingualism and language acquisition in school settings.

“Several factors contribute to a person’s ability to learn a language,” Genesee said. “Learning a language related to one [that] a person already knows is much easier because patterns can be spotted and followed.”

Fluency—complete control of a language—can vary among individuals and is usually hard to reach.

According to Genesee however, learning a language gets easier as you go.

“People who have learned another language already [are] likely better at learning languages in general since they’ve [already] learned how to learn a language,” Genesee said.

Research supports the theory that language acquisition is better at an earlier age, when the brain is more plastic. The neural structures for language are still developing, and different language patterns are more readily accepted and assimilated.

Yet there are exceptions to this trend, namely people who speak many languages: Polyglots. These are individuals who demonstrate remarkable mastery in languages—despite beginning the acquisition of a language in adulthood. It is thought that language acquisition is akin to athletic ability and musical talent: Some people are born to run the 10-metre dash in less than 10 seconds, while others train for it over time.   

“Individuals who are uninhibited—people who are not shy and are willing to try new things—are likely to be better language learners,” Genesee said.

The benefits of learning another language cannot be overstated. The most ostensible is the ability to communicate in another language.

“It helped me understand that there is more than one way to approach a problem,” said Divij Mehra, U2 Mechanical Engineer. “Different people express things differently [because of their language.]”

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