Multilingualism is healthy

Dec 4, 2020

#Formation #Languages #Advantages #Curiosities

Multilingualism is healthy

Anyone who speaks multiple languages ​​is constantly training their brain. This can protect against dementia, for example, and reduce symptoms after a stroke. An early start in language learning is ideal : More than half of all Europeans are now considered multilingual, and languages, including dialects, influence the robustness of the brain's architecture. It is for this reason that we dare to affirm that multilingualism is healthy.

Multilingualism in its rightful place

But multilingualism was not always considered desirable as it is today. For a long time, by contrast, it was believed that learning multiple languages ​​prevented the brain from learning the native language well. It was even feared that bilingualism could disturb the development of intelligence. This assumption persisted into the 1960s, then the tipping point came with a study from Montreal, Canada, where French and English are spoken: bilingual children performed better on intelligence tests than monolingual children. Concerns about intelligence development eventually dissipated. Since then, numerous studies have addressed the issue of multilingualism. It turns out that learning foreign languages ​​is a good idea in many ways and a worthwhile investment in education and even healthcare.

Multilingual people have a slightly smaller vocabulary

Certainly there are downsides. Multilingual people have a slightly smaller vocabulary in each language. May react a little more slowly in speaking situations. Also, sometimes there are small inaccuracies in listening comprehension. However, these are often very subtle differences that are hardly noticeable in the daily communication between us. If you observe how the brain handles languages, you will understand why these side effects arise. Access to a language is more complex in a multilingual brain than in a monolingual brain. Whenever a language is to be heard or spoken, the multilingual brain has to select the correct language, activate it, and at the same time suppress the other languages. It is like going to a supermarket and trying to buy an apple. First you stand in front of the offer and you have to decide which apple you want to buy now. If there was only one apple, there would be no need to search and decide. Therefore, it is not surprising that the multilingual brain occasionally takes a little more time than a monolingual brain to select and suppress. However, in general, after years of research on multilingualism, the following conclusion can be drawn: the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages. Multiple languages ​​are particularly challenging for the brain. It has to develop functions that other areas of learning can also benefit from.
Switching between tasks is easier for multilingual people. The advantages have a lot to do with the fact that it is necessary to choose the appropriate language and suppress the other languages ​​in the brain. This is exactly what high-level skills train all the time. Multilingual people benefit from this in many situations, for example when they have to switch between tasks, when flexibility is required.

Multilingual people tend to do better

It is approved that various languages ​​in the brain train the so-called executive functions particularly intensely. This includes, among other things, the ability to focus on something and ignore distractions. Executive functions have a great influence on how tasks can be mastered successfully, not only in school, but in other facets of life as well. This is why executive functions are so important and the very rewarding realization that they are effectively trained using multiple languages ​​in the brain. The multilingual brain exercises more, because it has to organize itself in a very special way and it needs a suitable architecture that has powerful networks in which all languages ​​can be accommodated. The rapid and efficient transmission of stimuli is also very important. In order for the brain to function efficiently, it needs more agility and of course high driving speed. This is achieved by the fact that the extensions of nerve cells, along which impulses must travel, are surrounded by a layer of fat called myelin.. This causes the speed of the line to increase from about three meters per second (without myelin) to more than 100 meters (with myelin). Myelinated fibers appear white, which is why they are called white matter.

The right hemisphere is better connected with the left

Among older bilinguals, more intact white matter could be detected than in monolinguals, especially in the structure of the brain that connects the left and right hemispheres. Finally, a rapid exchange of information between the two hemispheres is desirable , because the connections are of great importance for the proper functioning of the brain. A few years ago the journal Nature published that caused a great sensation: a group of researchers (Mechelli et al. 2004 ) showed that a certain region of the brain of bilingual or multilingual people becomes more dense. Which means that: a part of the brain becomes a little thicker. This compression is due to the intensive use of several languages. The many characteristics of the multilingual brain mean that it is not only very flexible but also very resilient. Various languages ​​in the brain ensure that age-related degradation processes develop more slowly. Now we can affirm that symptoms of dementia among bilinguals and multilinguals appear four or five years later, which, among other things, means that it is associated with the aforementioned thickening of a brain region. A study published late last year (Alladi et al. 2015) also shows that multilingualism can protect important functions in the brain. The researchers examined monolingual and multilingual stroke patients and found that bilingual people were significantly less likely to experience cognitive impairment than monolingual people . This can be explained through special training of executive functions in the multilingual brain.

Definitely studying languages ​​stimulates the brain even in older people

Health effects are not usually the first arguments put forward by proponents of an offer in a foreign language, which should start as early as possible in kindergarten. However, along with other findings, they demonstrate the value of investments in language education . The question of whether a foreign language is worth learning does not only arise with regard to early educational opportunities. This also applies to later stages of life and stages of education. However the question is: But isn't it too late at some point to benefit from language learning? The answer is emphatically: No. Brain variability is particularly great in childhood and adolescence. For this reason, there is much to be said for starting early in language learning.