Does Being Bilingual Make You Smarter?

From a Wall Street Journal story by Alison Gopnik headlined “Does Being Bilingual Make You Smarter?”:

One of the many joys of visiting Montreal is listening to fashionably dressed little children chatting over their chocolat chaudand croissants. I couldn’t help thinking, a bit absurdly: My goodness, those Quebec kids are smart—they not only speak French much better than I do, they’re great at English too!

Does bilingualism make you smarter?…Studies also show that bilingualism makes you better at learning additional languages and detecting language sounds, even when you’re very young….

But does bilingualism make you smarter in ways that go beyond language itself? That has been more controversial. Early studies, particularly by Ellen Bialystok and her colleagues at York University in Toronto, suggested that bilingualism improves “executive function.” That term takes in a range of abilities such as paying attention, inhibiting impulses and using “working memory”—for example, being able to repeat back a list of numbers. But some recent studies have had trouble replicating these results.

One problem is that so many different kinds of abilities are involved both in being bilingual and in executive function. Bilingualism calls on capacities to learn the two languages, keep the sounds straight, switch deftly between them and so on. Executive function encompasses many skills.

Two new studies get around this problem by looking directly at how bilingualism affects brain organization. In the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Marvin Chun of Yale University and colleagues analyzed behavior and brain-imaging results from a sample of over 1,000 9- and 10-year-olds. Like others, they found mixed results on executive-function tasks: Bilingual children showed a significant advantage on some, like working memory, but not on others.

The brain results were more consistent. The first generation of brain-imaging studies focused on which brain areas are active when you solve certain problems. Nowadays, researchers increasingly look at how different brain areas are connected to each other—what’s called “functional connectivity.” After all, the main point of a brain is to coordinate different kinds of information and abilities. Managing multiple languages might be most related to that kind of coordination. So Dr. Chun and colleagues looked at connections across the whole brain. They found that those were consistently different for bilingual and monolingual children.

The other study, published in the journal Developmental Science by Maria Arredondo at the University of Texas and colleagues, looked at 6- and 10-month-old babies. Though these infants weren’t talking yet themselves, some had been exposed to one language and others to more than one. The researchers gave the babies a task that involved paying attention to a particular object on a screen. They used near-infrared imaging that unobtrusively shines a light on baby’s heads and reveals brain activity based on how it is reflected back. Bilingual and monolingual babies performed similarly on the task. But it turned out that they used different combinations of brain areas to do it.

So those Montreal children, peering out bright-eyed from their snow suits, were not just brilliantly solving the task of learning two languages at once. They might have been thinking differently as well.

Psychologist Alison Gopnik explores new discoveries in the science of human nature. Read previous columns here.

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