Learning another language is a challenging yet fun task that many adults consider but don’t actually try. It often makes its way onto many New Year’s resolutions lists but is neglected just as quickly. With easy-to-use phone apps and other software tools, excuses are disappearing. New studies show that bilinguals have a serious advantage over monolinguals. In the past, being able to speak more than one language was regarded as advantageous primarily for college hopefuls and career seekers. Now, researchers have a much better understanding of what being multilingual really does for the brain, and the effects are monumental.

Psychologist Ellen Bialystok of York University has done multiple studies concerning bilingual individuals and their ability to utilize two separate “networks” of the brain while speaking. “The evidence is very dramatic. Even if you are in a context that is utterly monolingual, where you think there is absolutely no reason to think about Chinese or Spanish or French, it is part of the activated network that’s going on in your brain.” By constantly switching between the two languages, the speaker is exercising brain functions, keeping the speaker constantly alert. This exercise helps to promote cognition and the ability to think critically in a way that does not come naturally to monolinguals. Bialystok also noted in her research that those who are bilingual have a higher chance of delaying the effects of Alzheimer’s.

The European Commission appointed their own research team to analyze the benefits of being multilingual. David Marsh, coordinator of the international research team, believes that the work done by neuroscientists holds the key to linking multilingualism to improved functions of the brain. The research compiled by the team showed that there is one area of the brain used primarily for short-term memory. Like Bialystok, they believe that exercising the brain could help hold off dementia. Unlike Bialystok, however, the team also reports that the differences found in an already-multilingual brain could also be found in a person just starting to learn another language. Their research did not differentiate between children and adults, though children who grow up multilingual have more time to exercise and develop brain function.

Raising a multilingual child in a diverse home is much easier than in a monolingual one. Foreign languages in schools are extremely popular for this reason, but many schools that provide classes are still not utilizing the full potential of the students. Marsh highlights his concerns through his research, stating that not all children can learn languages as a separate subject like math or science; instead, he suggests integrating language into all other subjects. In Utah, 20 percent of public schoolsprovide an integrated language curriculum where students spend half of their day learning in English and the other half learning in Spanish, French, Mandarin or Portuguese. On a smaller scale, public schools in Milton, Massachusetts offer a French Immersion program, which begins in first grade and is taught entirely in the oral and written form of the language.  If more states followed similar models, the country would be able to produce more multilingual citizens. This would not only improve positions in international public relations, but it would also improve the education and capabilities of the nation.

Did You Know?
In October 2013, the Invisible Dog Art Center in Brooklyn hosted a free “crash course” language event they called Foreign Language Hopscotch. Taught by native speakers, students were given the opportunity to expose themselves to 22 languages in just three hours. Hosted in seven classrooms, about a hundred people gathered in rooms to learn languages such as Japanese, Spanish, Hindi, Russian and Igbo. Some of the students sat in on only one or two classes, while other stayed the entire day to try to pick up on the nuances of a new language.

The classes didn’t promise fluency, but were intended for students to learn “snippets” of the language—useful, and sometimes humorous, sentences that would teach them a range of language skills from greetings to ordering food. According to Cédric Duroux, program director for the Walls and Bridges festival (a 10-day event that also includes the hopscotch approach to learning a language), it’s impossible to become fluent in a half hour. However, Duroux notes that students can “go back home with a clearer sense that each language goes with a different culture, which goes with a different idea of the word itself. . . . [T]rying to connect with different languages and cultures is a way to change your perspective on the world as a whole.” (DYK by Emeli Warren)