Multilingualism Might Have More Benefits Than You Think


“Monolingualism is the illiteracy of the 21st century,” said Gregg Roberts, a language immersion specialist. Recently, his philosophy is seemingly becoming more relevant.In fact, current research shows that being multilingual, having the ability to speak more than one language, helps the brain become more resourceful and flexible.

A study within the past few years at Lund University in Sweden tested if learning a language caused any noticeable physical changes in the brain. Researchers scanned the brains of students enrolled in an arduous program that enabled them to become fluent in a language previously unfamiliar to them – all in the span of 13 months. They compared the scans to a control group; the brains of students enrolled in other rigorous programs, such as medical studies. The results were astonishing: they revealed that the the hippocampus, a part of the brain in charge of mastery and memory, and the cerebral cortex, a part of the brain in charge of reasoning, grow as a result of proficiency in a language. This growth is unique to language learning, as the control group showed no such change.

That’s not all. Research also indicates that multilingual people are more efficient; they can juggle having more than one word for every concept or object, thus making them defter when it comes to multitasking. The Stroop test measures this capability by flashing a names of colors on the screen in the color described; for example, the word “blue” could flash in the color blue. Intermittently, mismatches would flash, so the word “blue” could show up in the color orange. The point is for the participants to say the only color or the word mentioned.

John Ridely Stroop described the Stroop effect in 1935. It ultimately concluded that people are generally much faster at word processing than color processing. The task, though it seems trivial, is unexpectedly difficult, and bilinguals almost always fare better at the test than monolinguals do.

The sharpened brain capabilities of multilinguals are pronounced in senior citizens, even though their cognitive capabilities decline with age. Seniors have to activate their brains more than younger people do; however, bilingual adults have to do it less. Studies also show that multilingualism delays the onset of dementia and Alzheimers. “Everyone slows down some or makes more errors [as they grow older],” said Ellen Bialystock of Toronto’s York University, “but multilinguals have less of a drop off,” she added.

Promoting multilingualism is essential for America, but we have to start encouraging this idea in younger people, especially because adults have little time or incentive to learn a language. Developmental psychologists found that the younger students are, the more natural their language development skills. Our language capabilities peak at the age of one and have a sharp decline at the age of six. Newborns can recognize and distinguish their mother tongue, or both languages, if their mothers are bilingual.

In a society with an estimated 6,800 languages, it seems illogical that the United States is such a monoglot nation. Learning a second language shouldn’t just be cast aside as unimportant – it should be a priority. From womb to tomb, multilingualism only benefits your life.

[Sources: Time Magazine; Rochester Institute of Technology]

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