blog #1

The Bilingual Brain

I have always considered myself a linguistic mutt. I grew up speaking Bengali (my mother tongue), Hindi (India’s national language), and English (a legacy of India’s colonial past).

So I was thrilled to learn that the 2011 annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) had a session on bilingualism. It was titled ‘Crossing Borders in Language Science: What Bilinguals Are Telling Us About Mind and Brain.

Recent research by neuroscientists is starting to reveal some surprising facts about the basis of bilingualism in our brains. I’ll have more about these findings in upcoming episodes of my Science Podcast, which you can subscribe to from here. For now, here are the best bits from yesterday’s session.

“Bilinguals are mental jugglers,” says Judith Kroll, a psychologist at Penn State University and the organizer of the session.

Every time a bilingual person speaks or hears a language, they do more mental math than their monolingual friends. It turns out that a second language is always active in a bilingual’s brain. (more on that here) Even for simple tasks like naming an object, a bilingual’s brain has to choose between two options.  As several researchers described it, this leads to a “conflict” between the two languages in a bilingual’s brain.

That ‘conflict’ has become more apparent in my own life lately. Growing up in urban multilingual India, I switched back and forth between languages, and borrowing words from one language when speaking another. In other words, I often spoke Hinglish (Hindi+English), or Hindali, or Bengdi (Hindi + Bengali) or Benglish (Bengali + English). (Note: My father coined those terms out of frustration that my brother and I didn’t speak Bengali without mixing it up with Hindi and English) But once I moved to the U.S., I was stuck with one language – English. Even though I speak it fluently, I sometimes find myself at a loss for words. And when I do, my brain throws Bengali, or Hindi words at me. Unlike when I lived in India, I now have to ignore those words and continue to look for the right word in English.

So how does the brain of a bilingual or multilingual person resolve these conflicts? Well, that’s something that researchers are starting to figure out. (you can read more in this Science magazine article) But one thing that they do know now is that all this mental juggling comes with some advantages.

As York University’s Ellen Bialystok said during her presentation, bilinguals exercise parts of their brains involved in higher functions, like attention, multitasking and problem solving. As a result, bilinguals are often much better at problem solving than monolingual people. (Phew! At least there are some benefits to the battle of languages inside my brain.)

Bialystok’s more recent work also suggests that being bilingual can protect us against the cognitive decline that comes with ageing. It can even push the onset of dementia by 4-5 years. So, if you are considering learning a new language, remember doing so can come with a lifetime of benefits.

Blogger: Rhitu Chatterjee
More on language in The World’s Science Podcast:
Click Languages in Podcast 100
Clues to Bilingualism in Podcast 29.
Evolutionary Roots of Language in Podcast 88.

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This entry was posted on Saturday, February 19th, 2011 at 10:30 AM and is filed under Blog. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

2 Responses to “The Bilingual Brain”

  1. I studied Physics with German at university (and spent a year in Germany studying Phyics in German). Although that was a few years ago, I’m not saying how many, I still find some words come to me quicker in German than in English.[1]

    In written work, I sometime wonder if I capitalise my writing too much (in English proper nouns start with capital letters, in German every noun starts with a capital letter).

    On the the problem solving side, I’d like to think that but I suspect that it’s just my ego and not a demonstrable quality.

    [1] I confess that I listen to some German language podcasts so it’s not been a clean break.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Rhitu Chatterjee


      Fascinating! Your experience corroborates some of the Judith Kroll’s recent findings. She and her colleagues have shown that a second language During her presentation at AAAS, she talked about how a second language in fact influences how we use our first.


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