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Is bilingualism good for your brain?

An article by Erica Westly in July/Aug 2011 Scientific American Mind ) suggests recent research shows that children who speak two languages are more flexible and creative in (admittedly lab-based) tasks than monolingual children, and don’t show any intellectual or linguistic delay (Kovács & Mehler, Adi-Japha & al). A sidebar by Lauren Migliore also points out that bilingualism seems to protect against cognitive decline in old age (research by Bialystok at York U, Canada).
Not surprising really, except that I remember lots of research about the cognitively damaging effects of being bilingual – but maybe that was done  in a culture that saw poor ‘immigrants’ (the most obviously bilingual group) as being inferior. There was another multilingual group – of classicists, diplomats, royalty (I guess Prince Philip speaks English, Danish and Greek, at least), and other members of the social elite – but they were ‘gifted polyglots’.
The article points out that the idea of bilingualism being intellectually damaging wasn’t visible in the US in the 19th century, when it was very common in a nation built on immigration, but it’s a more acceptable idea in monoglot countries like 20th century USA and the UK. Maybe we’re becoming a bit more open in our thinking now – or maybe more psychological research is being done by people who aren’t from monoglot anglo/US backgrounds (note the names of the researchers mentioned above).
Note for Schools of Thought students: another politics/psychology/society interaction? Remember that it was in the first part of the 20th century that psychology was mobilised to ‘scientifically’ declare immigrants to the US intellectually inferior in other ways.
This new research fits my prejudices – I always suspected  that people (even if poor and foreign) who could speak several languages were smarter than me, who has a bit of French, less Latin, and hardly any Finnish*. Maybe it also helps to explain all those brilliant musicians from West Africa, where it seems pretty usual to speak several languages.
Could also be bad news for lazy Anglophone academics like me, who rely on  the fact that Academic English (not the same as UK English, but close) has become the new Latin of the academic world (but maybe not for long).
Another thought: how much does the difference in languages matter? Compared with other world languages, Northern European languages are more-or-less dialects of the same basic form – apart from Finnish, which comes from a different root entirely. Does being bilingual in Finnish and French give more intellectual advantages than being bilingual in English & French? And Sorhai, Tamasheck, Peul, Dogon, French, English and probably a few more (as were spoken by Ali Farka Touré) could be better still.

*En puhu Suomea, anteeksi. No, olen Englantilainen


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