Updated: Jan 17, 2019
Before the 1960s, bilingualism was perceived to be a handicap that slows a child's development by forcing them to spend too much energy on distinguishing between discrete languages.
However, the heightened attention required to switch between languages strengthens the synaptic connections within the Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex in the brain, the area responsible for complex cognitive functions including executive orders, decision making problem solving, multitasking, motor planning, focusing, filtering out irrelevant information, and abstract reasoning, (watch video below).
While available scientific research has not established a direct connection between multilingualism and intelligence, speaking multiple language increases the density within the grey matter that contains most of the brain's neurons and synapses. Such an effect is tantamount to a high-intensity workout for the brain delaying the onset of brain diseases like Alzheimer and dementia by at least 5 years.
Scientific evidence suggests that careers requiring robust working memory including prompt decision-making, conflict resolution, and complex analytical functions like political missions, diplomatic posts and project management are better suited to polyglots
For example, during international conferences and when deliberating sensitive global issues, mastery of another language means a fast-track ticket to the counterpart's inner thoughts, where one can weave a strong personal rapport by decoding the target language fluently and idiomatically. The same applies to a project manager who can smoothly toggle between tasks while managing stakeholder relations, internal resources, and external vendors via the use of a foreign language.
Competing Languages & Neuroplasticity
Neuroplasticity is the brain's ability to reorganise itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. It allows the neurons (nerve cells) in the brain to compensate for injury and diseases; and to adjust their activities in response to new situations or to changes in their environment
Neuroimaging revealed that bilingual brains have a different structure in comparison to monolinguals since the former witness a constant war waging, where language meanings are constantly competing to activate their corresponding areas within the working memory. As such, bilinguals deploy more neural resources - to manage language-switching - towards the dominant language versus the less dominant counterpart. Such biological phenomenon provides evidence for the variance in neural responses to linguistic competition between versus within languages, and demonstrate the brain’s remarkable neuroplasticity, where language experience can change neural processing.
"When competition occurred between two languages, bilinguals recruited additional frontal control and subcortical regions, specifically the right middle frontal gyrus, superior frontal gyrus, caudate, and putamen, compared to competition that occurred within a single language." - Prof. Viorica Marian
Studies over the past two decades have concluded without a shadow of a doubt that music and multilingualism result in denser grey matter, especially in the left parietal regions of the cerebral cortex. Concurrently, such a structure is associated with better maintenance of the white matter during ageing.
Moreover, symptoms of dementia are delayed in individuals who have been lifelong bilinguals,” says Ellen Bialystok, Research Professor of Psychology and Walter Gordon York Research Chair of Lifespan Cognitive Development at York University (Canada), in a conversation with OpenMind.
The professor and her team of scientists reviewed neuroimaging and behavioural studies that analysed bilingualism in adulthood. They concluded that mastering two languages protects against cognitive deterioration due to the elevated mental activity carried out throughout life in the face of healthy ageing. Finally, bilingualism can delay the onset of symptoms in people suffering from dementia and Alzheimer by 5 years; and can improve post-stroke recovery for affected patients.
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