Bilingualism Encourages Mental Agility

 Tina Pentland: News Editor

An active brain is a healthy brain. This is the message to be learned from recent studies of advanced bilinguals who use a different kind of mental process, called “parallel activation”, to access a word in two languages at the same time. Not only are advanced bilinguals so-called because they are equally fluent in two languages, they also are able to move between languages without any added processing cost, even in mid-sentence.

Lexical activation is the term used to describe the brain processes involved in locating words in our mental dictionary (or lexicon). This kind of mental process, which occurs at great speed and generally well below our conscious awareness, is fairly “costly” in terms of processing power. Amazing as it may seem, parallel activation enables fluent bilingual speakers to simultaneously activate words in two languages (Spanish or English, say), regardless of which language they are using at the time—but, nevertheless, to produce the correct target word at the same time, thus showing that production of the correct word is under the control of the speaker. Understandably, perhaps, it is hardly surprising that parallel activation in bilinguals has been considered more costly, in terms of brain processes, than lexical activation by monolinguals (i.e., people who speak only one language). This does not appear to be the case, however. Instead, it seems that fluent bilingual speakers, who simultaneously access words in both languages, and switch seamlessly between either language, have a cognitive advantage over monolinguals. In other words, bilingual brains may be stronger and healthier, or more “agile” than their monolingual counterparts—because they are continually active in not one, but two languages.

bigstock-Students-sitting-listening-to--39330463Judith Kroll, co-author of a study ‘When language switching has no apparent cost: lexical access in sentence context’, published recently in the Journal Frontiers in Psychology states: “Not only is bilingualism not bad for you, it may be really good. When you’re switching languages all the time it strengthens your mental muscle and your executive function becomes enhanced.” The study was carried out in two parts, where fluent bilinguals in Spanish and English had to read sentences containing cognate (i.e., words that look and/or sound the same in either language) or non-cognate words, and the processing times to produce the target words were measured. In the first experiment, the sentences containing the target words were randomly presented, either Spanish or English; in the second experiment, carried out a few days later, the sentences were presented one language at a time, in order to assess whether language context affected processing speeds. As predicted, processing time for cognate words was faster than for non-cognate words; furthermore, language context did not affect processing speed. In other words, both languages are active at the same time. Hence, the study’s findings support the view that lexical code-switching imposes no significant processing cost—and, thus, that bilingualism is good for you!

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