There is a large body of literature on the cognitive effects and benefits of learning a second language. Adding a language to a child’s education has shown to have positive lifelong effects. With few negative impacts to bilingualism, every age group has exhibited cognitive advances that continue into the later stages of life. If we, as a society, want the best for our children and future generations, we have a responsibility to educate all to the best of our knowledge and abilities. These cognitive benefits are the same ones professionals will need in a shrinking world, where different languages and cultures come into contact daily. As many nations around the world embrace a bilingual or multilingual education, we too should adopt educational advancements to promote better cognitive potential and a more culturally aware and empathetic workforce.
Bilingualism has been a heavily researched topic over the past few decades and continues to gain steam. Therefore, we have numerous studies finding that bilingualism leads to two different ways of thinking and storing information (Kroll & Bialystok, 2013; Nicoladis, 2016). Some of the cognitive functions and abilities that bilinguals seem to perform better at are creative thinking, executive function (EF) tasks, visuospatial tasks, and social awareness. For example, bilinguals often generate more ideas on tasks involving abstract concepts (Ben-Zeev, 1977) which implies increased creativity. Likewise, a study performed by Adi-Japha, Berberich-Artzi, and Libnawi (2010) found bilingual children adding more details to drawing tasks.
One of the very interesting elements revealed by bilingual studies is that many of the cognitive benefits are in regards to nonverbal tasks dealing with EF. Foy and Mann (2014) performed a study comparing verbal and nonverbal EF skills and found that bilinguals show larger advantages in the nonverbal tasks. These higher EF skills have been closely linked to academic performance (Blair & Razza, 2007) and suggest that training EF, by learning a second language, could boost performance (Foy & Mann, 2014).
Other research has found that bilinguals understand context better, since language is heavily dependent upon context (Nicoladis, 2016). Due to mental switching, or the cognitive processes used for one language that differ for those used on the other, bilinguals have scored faster response times involving speed tasks (Nicoladis, 2016) and often demonstrate an increased ability for multitasking (Hsieh, 2015). In fact, Bialystok, Craik, and Luk (2012) propose a domain-general theory of cognitive enhancement that suggests bilingualism increases cognitive functions as a whole. As evidence, already discussed are many EF and visuospatial benefits, but in addition there is improved attention control, enhanced memories, better filtering of unwanted stimuli, and overall improved academic performance (Kroll & Bialystok, 2013; Hsieh, 2015; Nicoladis, 2016).
There have been two research trends of note investigating the effects of bilingualism. The first body of research has been examining the neural processes at work in bilinguals and the differences in brain structures and types of matter. For instance, Mechelli et al. (2004) discuss an increase in gray matter volume, associated with language control. The other body of research has been investigating the manifestations of bilingualism, e.g., academic performance, response times on timed tests, memory skills, cultural awareness, empathy, and many more. Although researchers can see structural changes and neural processing through imaging scans, such as fMRIs, they only tell one half of the story. The other half are the real-world outcomes which show strong support for lifelong benefits, including those experienced in old age, like the delay of dementia.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Bilingualism
There are many different levels of advantages offered by learning a second language. On the surface, there are better communication abilities, more job opportunities, and a better understanding of cultural contexts (Okal, 2014). As companies expand across the world, being able to communicate in more than one language provides additional resources. Additionally, a heightened awareness of another person’s culture can bring empathy into the relationship, or at least acknowledgement that culture has a role in all relationships, including professional and business ones.
Some of the structural and cognitive changes, and enhancements have already been discussed, but what advantages do these noticed changes provide? In a multitasking study, Hsieh (2015) found that bilingual participants had faster reaction times with visual event detection while driving and talking on a cell phone. According to the study, it seems that bilingualism improves attention control during multitasking. One could speculate that improved attention control is related to contextual awareness, seeing as the bilingual person has to know which language to use based on the situation, and be able to switch instantly if need be. Bilinguals also show an increased ability to store and recall memories, including greater amounts of detail (Nicoladis, 2016). Connecting the dots, enhanced memories correlate to better academic performance. The domain-general enhancement approach to bilingualism, mentioned earlier, applies to these benefits as well. Each advantage discussed here and above has shown time and again to lead to improved academic performance over their monolingual counterparts.
It’s easy to see how a second language can help in a professional setting as well as an educational one. But what about those who will inevitably experience some sort of cognitive decline – the elderly? Not only are the cognitive benefits of bilingualism beneficial to children and every other age group, but they promote better cognitive function throughout a lifetime (Kroll & Bialystok, 2013). Some of the greatest advantages could be for those in their later years. As cognitive decline begins, elderly bilinguals show signs of a much slower decline (Kroll & Bialystok, 2013). These results are even more impactful when examining cases of dementia. In a study performed by Schroeder and Marian (2012), they found that bilinguals had an enhanced episodic memory which correlated with a much slower onset of Alzheimer’s disease, a form of dementia.
Before discussing the few disadvantages noticed in some bilingual studies, there is one other area of advantages to briefly discuss. The societal effects of bilingualism can be immense. First, there is the increase in communication abilities, as already discussed. Better communication often leads to better understanding, empathy, and that the idea or concept is properly conveyed. Second, if bilingualism is seen as a resource in a world job market (Okal, 2014), then that should mean bilinguals have an advantage in skills needed, which could translate to a better quality of job. As the value of jobs increase, so does the pay and quality of living – societal benefits. Third, is cultural sensitivity. When someone feels a connection to another culture, contempt for them is less likely. Obviously, a more empathetic society is a friendlier, less harmful one. And lastly, children receiving bilingual educations have been found to have more active, involved parents leading to children with higher self-esteem (Okal, 2014). Children who are more confident in their abilities should perform better academically, hopefully turning into more productive adults. Again, the societal benefits should be obvious when children believe in themselves and their abilities.
One of the few possible disadvantages discovered by bilingual studies is that they experience more tip-of-the-tongue instances (Gollan, & Acenas, 2004). Another disadvantage is that bilinguals are often slower on naming pictures than monolinguals (Gollan, Montoya, Fennema-Notestine, & Morris, 2005). Both of these negative effects seem logical as bilinguals have to recall a word from two languages simultaneously. Even though the context of the situation calls for only one language, research has shown that both languages are activated in bilinguals (Kroll & Bialystok, 2013). Depending on how results are viewed, another possible disadvantage is that bilinguals are better at describing overall messages and the ideas behind them, but not specifics (Nicoladis, 2016). For instance, if a bilingual was trying to describe Superman, she might describe all of Superman’s features, abilities, strengths, and weaknesses, but never actually mention his name as Superman.
Although there are benefits of learning a second language noticed at every stage of life, the most effective and beneficial way to implement learning a second language is through early education programs. Many nations around the world use these programs, but even today we have these models in place across the United States, called two-way immersion (TWI) programs. There are different versions, but most start in Kindergarten and require no less than 30% representation of each language being learned (Alanis & Rodriguez, 2008). This means that a Spanish-English TWI class must have at least 30% of children speaking Spanish as a first language and 30% of children speaking English as a first language in order to be effective.
Each TWI model begins with both languages being used throughout the school day, often switching between subjects. Models range from 90/10 (90% Spanish, 10% English) to 70/30 (70% Spanish, 30% English) as beginners enter the program, with a goal of reaching a 50/50 mix by fourth grade (Alanis & Rodriguez, 2008). These successful models use a heavier mix of Spanish in the earlier years because it is assumed most of the children’s real-life interactions will be in English, so they’ll be more exposed to it on a daily basis.
Alanis and Rodriguez (2008) examined a successful TWI program in Texas and investigated how the children compared against their monolingual peers on a standardized assessment test. Over a two-year period, the TWI students, on average, consistently outperformed other children across the district and state. Even more astounding is that the TWI children had high scores in English reading, when they weren’t formally instructed to read in English until three years after their monolingual peers. This and other studies indicate that children in TWI classes perform better academically. Although there has been some debate as to the causes of the increased testing scores, other than the addition of a second language, the scores, nonetheless, seem to be augmented by TWI classes.
There are some common themes noticed in TWI programs that are necessary for proper implementation and success. Alanis and Rodriguez (2008) discuss four contributing factors, or characteristics, of successful and sustainable TWI programs. First, both languages in the program must be treated as equals. This doesn’t mean the time devoted to each should be equal, but that the teachings should not insinuate that one language is better than the other, or represents anything better. In society, their usage might be disparate, but that doesn’t mean either one is superior. Second, the teachers need to be effective in both languages and have a commitment to the program. The TWI teachers had two overwhelming similarities – a commitment to the children and to building partnerships with the parents. Third, parents with children enrolled in TWI classes, on average, participated more in their child’s education and activities. Much of the success of the program relies on the parents’ extra devotion to their child’s education and the program itself. And the fourth element noticed in successful TWI programs is a principal who stands in strong support of the program and provides the necessary resources to continue its effectiveness. Without strong leadership, the success of the TWI program might not be as beneficial.
Recommended Approach in Professional Settings
The numerous cognitive benefits offered by the addition of a second language have been discussed at length. These benefits are most pronounced in bilingual children, but these results have been shown to continue over a lifetime. Clearly, as these children continue their academic bilingual careers, they will have an increased chance of becoming stronger professionals, no matter what the setting. This is by far the best approach to creating a more effective, culturally and contextually aware, empathetic, and productive workforce. However, this approach, having strong evidence, takes a long time before coming to fruition.
There are two other methods commonly used to introduce a second language to adults in order to increase their communication and cognitive abilities. The first involves computer-assisted language programs, such as Rosetta Stone. Although adults attempting to acquire a second language may never be as fluent as natural speakers, programs like Rosetta Stone can offer conversational abilities. Research has shown that late learners may never catch up with the fluency of natural speakers, but that the cognitive benefits do happen, and increase faster as the learning continues (Burkhauser, Steele, Li, Slater, Bacon, & Miller, 2016). Another program often used by businesses, which follows a similar methodology as Rosetta Stone-type software, is partnering with local community colleges and high schools that offer introductory bilingual programs that are usually conversational in nature.
Bilingualism has many cognitive benefits continuously confirmed through a large amount of research. The addition of a second language has shown to increase cognitive flexibility, visuospatial tasks, executive functions, and social cognition (Nicoladis, 2016). Furthermore, these benefits appear to be lifelong and provide benefits at every stage of life. Two-way immersion programs are perhaps the best way to implement learning a second language and are most effective on younger children. The benefits tested in children apply specifically to them, but can be carried over to the education systems, society, and eventually into the workplace as they continue to grow. Even those who weren’t fortunate enough to receive a bilingual education can still take advantage of the cognitive advantages offered by a second language. As scientists and researchers unlock more mysteries of the brain, we should use that new information to promote further cognitive advancements. After all, what’s the point of investigating something of such importance if it’s never used or implemented?
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