The Bilingual Brain 

A lot has been written about the idea that languages may change the brains of bilinguals, in the sense of changing they way they think and the way we see the world, an idea sparked by the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of the nineteenth century. (There will be more about this conceptions of language and bilingualism in a future blog.) But more recently much research has been published about the possibility of language to change not only the kinds of thoughts we have but also the physical way in which we think, that is the theory that the physical nature of the brain of a bilingual is different to that of a monolingual person. It may seem incredible that the (mere) acquisition of a language can have a real effect on somebody’s brain, but the research supports such a theory. Scientists have often theorised that strenuous mental activity, such as that required in order to become fluent in a foreign language, can prevent degeneration of the physical tissue of the brain, thus staving off conditions such as Alzheimer’s, one of the scourges of modern society. Yet bilinguals benefit not only from increased protection against Alzheimer’s, but also from improvements in their everyday cognitive processes.

An illuminating article on this, and the idea that learning a foreign language alters the composition of the brain, was published last month in the Huffington Post. In ‘Your Mind on Language: How Bilingualism Boosts Your Brain’, the article cites numerous ways in which bilinguals theoretically process thoughts or think in a different way to those who speak only one language. For example, the article notes that bilingual people are better able to concentrate on two things at once, are able to plan better and to think more critically and have greater powers of reasoning and recal. These conclusions are not merely derived from the fact that bilingual people must necessarily possess a different or more developed set of skills which allowed them to learn languages in the first place, or resulted in their becoming bilingual; it is a consequence of the fact that the grey matter of the brain of a bilingual is denser than that of a monolingual, and that the parts of the bilingual people’s brains devoted to tasks such as memorising and reasoning are larger in comparison with their monolingual counterparts.

The Huffington Post article neatly breaks down the reception of language by the brain into layman’s terms, showing that language is received, processed, understood and produced by four different areas of the brain: The auditory cortex, Wernicke’s area, Broca’s area, and the motor cortex.

The process of language comprehension is obviously more complex in the brains of bilinguals because, as the article in the Huffington Post points out, the brain has to work to identify the sounds of the word in whichever language is it received. This strengthens the brain’s ability to make decisions, which thus makes bilingual people better at multi-tasking or conflict-managing than their monolingual counterparts. An article in the New York Times (‘Why Bilinguals Are Smarter, March 2012) which also looks at the benefits of bilingualism to the brain notes that being bilingual was long considered to have a negative impact on cognition and intellectual development. Throughout much of the last century, the conflict between the two languages in the brain of a bilingual was seen as a hindrance rather than, as scientists now believe it to be, something which actually strengthens the decision-making abilities and other cognitive processes of the bilingual.

Is the effect of change on the composition of the brain as profound in those who acquired a second foreign language in later childhood or in adulthood as compared with those were bilingual from birth? According to the Huffington Post article, the language is received in a different way by the brain depending on whether it is a language acquired in early childhood or in relatively later life. The article states that ‘if you learn a language after adolescence, a separate area develops for the second language near the area used for your native tongue.’ Those who became bilingual in adolescence or later in life do however still benefit from the protective properties of language-learning.

However, for both native speakers of two languages and ‘artificial’ bilinguals alike, the same rule applies to the retention of the second language (or even in some cases the native language). If you don’t use it, you lose it and like a muscle, language is something that has to be exercised and used in order to be fully retained. Language-learning is an ongoing task, and one that is never entirely complete.