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Can bilingualism improve your brain's multitasking power? Je ne sais pas

October 14, 2010

Should parents raise their children bilingually – teaching them two languages from a very young age? It’s a thorny subject, but as UCLA linguist Jared Diamond writes in an editorial in the journal Science, knowing more than one language could improve your multitasking skills from infancy and delay the onset of Alzheimer’s in old age.

Here’s how it works, according to the editorial published online Thursday: When a bilingual person hears a word, it starts a mental flitting between two language systems to figure out what that word means, how to put it in the context of the conversation and how to respond. That high-level ability is governed by a process called executive switching, which happens in the prefrontal cortex.

Executive switching is also the process that enables “multitasking” – which isn’t really doing multiple things at the same time, but rapidly switching from one to the other.

Experiments with bilingual babies (and yes, babies can be bilingual – they learn to recognize different sounds produced in different languages) showed that the infants were able to adjust to unpredictable changes in a ‘game,’ while the monolingual babies were not.

It helped for the senior end of the spectrum, too – among elderly Canadian patients who had a probable Alzheimer’s diagnosis, those who were bilingual showed symptoms about five years later than their monolingual counterparts.

Studies from the 1960s have shown that children learning two languages appear to acquire language more slowly than their monolingual peers. But, Diamond points out, those results might have been muddled by factors like education and socioeconomic status. 

So does bilingual education need more study to be proved beneficial? Does it have to start early in infancy for people to reap the benefits, or can it be learned in elementary school, or even later?

The makers of the documentary “Speaking in Tongues,” which follows San Francisco elementary school students learning two languages, seem to argue that students, not just infants, can also experience other benefits from a bilingual education. It’s streaming free until tomorrow, according to a New America Media article – so check it out and decide for yourself.

-- Amina Khan / Los Angeles Times

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