Bilingualism is good for your brain, and this book proves it
02 Aug 2017
How do two languages exist within the same brain? Are bilingual people cleverer? Is age a factor when it comes to learning a second language? These and other questions abound concerning bilingualism.
Albert Costa, a psychologist and head of research on bilingualism at the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, recently published a book called "The Bilingual Brain – The Neuroscience of Language."
In it, he seeks to debunk some of the myths surrounding bilingualism and establish whether the assumptions we make about bilingual people are actually true.
The book confirms that speaking two languages is good for the development of our brains as we age: "It is as if the bilingual brain is doing gymnastics," Costa says. So, when attention begins to falter, "having used two languages continuously provides a cognitive reserve that makes decline occur more slowly."
Also, the constant use of more than one language, from birth or starting at a later age, confers what Costa describes as "cognitive flexibility" and others call "multitasking" ability.
This means being able to do several things simultaneously, and being able to switch smoothly between different tasks. Instead of an attention deficit, the opposite occurs: a bilingual speaker is "able to focalize more," so as not to mix languages.
A bilingual person can also learn a third language more easily. Costa explains that this is not because of a better grip on words or grammar: a person fluent in both Spanish and English will probably face the same difficulties as a Spanish speaker when learning Chinese, but will have better language control.
"Bilingual people are jugglers of those two languages," he says. "They are continuously controlling them and that is what you need to learn a language."
One disadvantage of bilingualism is lexical competence. A bilingual person knows more words in total, but vocabulary in each language "will be a little bit less broad."
Fluidity is also affected. "Those times when you can't find the right word are more common in bilingual speakers than in monolingual ones," Costa says.
Costa believes the best time to start learning a second language is in the first year of life, before we can actually speak.