Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Why Bilinguals Are Smarter: Think About Keeping Your Adopted Child's First Language

There may be big advantages in keeping a native language for an
older adopted child.

Speaking two languages rather than just one has obvious practical
benefits in an increasingly globalized world. But in recent
years, scientists have begun to show that the advantages of
bilingualism are even more fundamental than being able to
converse with a wider range of people. Being bilingual, it turns
out, makes you smarter. It can have a profound effect on your
brain, improving cognitive skills not related to language and
even shielding against dementia in old age.

This view of bilingualism is remarkably different from the
understanding of bilingualism through much of the 20th century.
Researchers, educators and policy makers long considered a second
language to be an interference, cognitively speaking, that
hindered a child's academic and intellectual development.

They were not wrong about the interference: there is ample
evidence that in a bilingual's brain both language systems are
active even when he is using only one language, thus creating
situations in which one system obstructs the other. But this
interference, researchers are finding out, isn't so much a
handicap as a blessing in disguise. It forces the brain to
resolve internal conflict, giving the mind a workout that
strengthens its cognitive muscles.

Bilinguals, for instance, seem to be more adept than monolinguals
at solving certain kinds of mental puzzles. Ina 2004 studyby the
psychologists Ellen Bialystok and Michelle Martin-Rhee, bilingual
and monolingual preschoolers were asked to sort blue circles and
red squares presented on a computer screen into two digital bins
- one marked with a blue square and the other marked with a red

In the first task, the children had to sort the shapes by color,
placing blue circles in the bin marked with the blue square and
red squares in the bin marked with the red circle. Both groups
did this with comparable ease. Next, the children were asked to
sort by shape, which was more challenging because it required
placing the images in a bin marked with a conflicting color. The
bilinguals were quicker at performing this task.

The collective evidence from a number of such studies suggests
that the bilingual experience improves the brain's so-called
executive function - a command system that directs the attention
processes that we use for planning, solving problems and
performing various other mentally demanding tasks. These
processes include ignoring distractions to stay focused,
switching attention willfully from one thing to another and
holding information in mind - like remembering a sequence of
directions while driving.

Why does the tussle between two simultaneously active language
systems improve these aspects of cognition? Until recently,
researchers thought the bilingual advantage stemmed primarily
from an ability forinhibitionthat was honed by the exercise of
suppressing one language system: this suppression, it was
thought, would help train the bilingual mind to ignore
distractions in other contexts. But that explanation increasingly
appears to be inadequate, since studies have shown that
bilinguals perform better than monolinguals even at tasks that do
not require inhibition, like threading a line through an
ascending series of numbers scattered randomly on a page.

The key difference between bilinguals and monolinguals may be
more basic: a heightened ability to monitor the environment.
"Bilinguals have to switch languages quite often - you may talk
to your father in one language and to your mother in another
language," says Albert Costa, a researcher at the University of
Pompeu Fabra in Spain. "It requires keeping track of changes
around you in the same way that we monitor our surroundings when
driving." In a study comparing German-Italian bilinguals with
Italian monolinguals on monitoring tasks, Mr. Costa and his
colleagues found that the bilingual subjects not only performed
better, but they also did so with less activity in parts of the
brain involved in monitoring, indicating that they were more
efficient at it.

The bilingual experience appears to influence the brain from
infancy to old age (and there is reason to believe that it may
also apply to those who learn a second language later in life).

Ina 2009 study led by Agnes Kovacsof the International School for
Advanced Studies in Trieste, Italy, 7-month-old babies exposed to
two languages from birth were compared with peers raised with one
language. In an initial set of trials, the infants were presented
with an audio cue and then shown a puppet on one side of a
screen. Both infant groups learned to look at that side of the
screen in anticipation of the puppet. But in a later set of
trials, when the puppet began appearing on the opposite side of
the screen, the babies exposed to a bilingual environment quickly
learned to switch their anticipatory gaze in the new direction
while the other babies did not.

Bilingualism's effects also extend into the twilight years. In a
recent study of 44 elderly Spanish-English bilinguals, scientists
led by the neuropsychologist Tamar Gollan of the University of
California, San Diego, found that individuals with a higher
degree of bilingualism - measured through a comparative
evaluation of proficiency in each language - were more resistant
than others to the onset of dementia and other symptoms of
Alzheimer's disease: the higher the degree of bilingualism, the
later the age of onset.

Nobody ever doubted the power of language. But who would have
imagined that the words we hear and the sentences we speak might
be leaving such a deep imprint?

Yudhijit Bhattacharjee is a staff writer at Science. Reprinted
from the NY Times

If you or someone you love, want to welcome a child into their
lives and families, as my husband and I did, Adoption Services
International can help.

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