Learning more than one language may be the best route to a stronger, nimbler brain, according to the latest data. While it was once thought that retaining more than one language “crowded out” other parts of the brain, new research reveals the opposite: multilingualism fine-tunes cognition in unique and often startling ways.
There are many cognitive benefits to speaking more than one language. Multilingual speakers have greater ease retrieving words, are better test-takers, display greater empathy, recover faster from strokes, and have a decreased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
Learning a new language also hones the neural networks responsible for executive control — the set of brain functions encompassing multi-tasking, high-level thought and sustained attention. According to a 2015 Harvard Graduate School of Education study, “bilinguals at all ages demonstrate better executive control than monolinguals matched in age and other background factors.”
To understand such phenomena better, we spoke to Michael Maniska, head of the International School of Los Angeles / Lycée International de Los Angeles, a preschool – 12 French/English immersion school.
He studies the effects of multilingualism extensively, and observes that his students are not only better thinkers, but have a deeper understanding of a complex, interconnected world.
We asked him how language learning affects the brain:
Are human beings naturally wired to be multilingual?
The data suggests that 50% of the world is bilingual, so I have to believe that people are naturally wired — or else so many people wouldn’t be able to speak multiple languages. I do think there are a lot of contextual and motivational factors that inform bilingualism. For example, I was the child of Greek migrants. I grew up in a household where Greek was spoken. People in our school community will often have one French parent and one American parent, so it’s in their upbringing.
Other times people have motivational reasons: they marry or partner with someone who comes from a different language background and so in order to better understand the culture of their partner, they will learn a foreign language. So I do think motivation plays a big part, exposure plays a big part, and background plays a big part — but I have to believe that with half the world being bilingual, everyone has some capacity.
How does multilingualism affect cognitive ability?
All the data confirms that multilingual children have a deeper level of cognition and cognitively outstrip and outperform their monolingual counterparts. Beyond the actual ability of speaking two languages, they are working at a deeper level. There are also a lot of interesting studies doing the rounds at the moment about the fact that the study of a language can offset or delay the onset of Alzheimer’s. The study of a language forces people cognitively to keep moving.
What about academic performance?
The College Board produces some interesting data about the SAT scores of bilingual children, which suggests that bilingual students average 100-150 points higher on SAT scores than monolingual students. We’ve also tracked our students’ scores on Stanford English language tests and there, too, we see that over the bilingual trajectory they outperform their monolingual counterparts, particularly in areas like language, but most notably in areas like problem-solving. So whether we look at it from a French perspective or a U.S. perspective, all the data confirms to us that the students are better thinkers.
Beyond cognitive benefits, what cultural or social advantages are inherent in learning a new language?
The actual ability to speak a foreign language is really just what I would call the low-hanging fruit. Often when people talk about bilingualism and a globalized world, they tend to talk about the capacity to interact with other people, but I would say there are deeper fruits beyond the very delightful fruit of bilingualism. The first is what I would call “deep intercultural competency.” These are students who, as a result of being able to interact with students from different language backgrounds, are very much more at home with embracing difference, diversity, and anything that is not familiar to them. I have to believe that’s a direct product of bilingualism, because they’re always framing their world into linguistic contexts, and therefore it’s of no surprise to them that they encounter people who come from different perspectives and different backgrounds.
Our students really excel when it comes to understanding that the world is a complex and nuanced place. They show higher levels of empathy. They show higher levels of embracing diversity. They’re more able to tease out issues in a complex way, rather than working with stereotypes or generalizations. Our students are really able to embrace the uncertainty and volatility of the world, understanding that the world is a complex place and that reductionist views of the world are often dangerous.
Does being multilingual translate to career success?
As we get more and more familiar with our alumni, students report to us that a bilingual education has equipped them very well. We know, for example, unlike older generations that have had more lockstep careers, more and more students leaving schools these days are likely to have three to five, seven-to-eight-year distinct professional lives. The type of competencies that students need really transcend curriculum mastery and go to what is sometimes referred to as the six C’s of 21st century learning: collaboration, communication, citizenship, character, creativity, and critical thinking.
I have to believe that implicitly a school such as ours is fueling our students with those competencies, while at the same time giving them a high level of rigorous challenge. And then in turn, with those skills in hand, the students are able to make the kinds of shifts in terms of country, languages, and work settings that will enable them to be effective in the workforce over the multitude of professional lives that may await them.
What are the benefits of an immersion-style bilingual education vs. a standard high school language class?
Many of us learn languages in a silo. We’re in a monolingual learning environment and then we have the French class or the Spanish class or the Mandarin class. And in that class we are learning vocabulary and syntax, and all of our learning is in this silo that doesn’t really correlate to the rest of our instruction. Students in a school like ours are actually learning science and mathematics in French, they’re learning history and geography in French. So it makes for a hugely different experience when you have an immersion style rather than the standard high school style. The standard high school style is not giving you that high level of bilingualism or that cross-curriculum processing. Being a 9th-grader learning science in French means that you’re doing two things at once: learning the concept and the language to go with it. So it’s a huge added value.
Is it ever too late for someone to become bilingual?
The data certainly confirms that students who start earlier have a greater likelihood of achieving a higher level of bilingualism. Some studies will say that after about 14 years of age, it’s almost impossible for a non-native speaker to speak a foreign language without an accent. But I often say to people that learning a foreign language is like learning a musical instrument, and to become very proficient you need a lot of exposure.
My advice: Be disciplined. Stay with it when it gets tough. Practice developing all skills (listening, speaking, reading and writing) or prioritize the ones that are important to you (e.g., listening and speaking if your main aim is to communicate with people when you’re traveling). Finally, be prepared to take risks. Kids do this well, but adults tend to prefer safety.