North Americans have often thought that growing up in a bilingual household would confuse young children. The idea was that "confusion" over which language to speak would make learning more difficult for the child.
Janet Werker, a psychologist at Vancouver's University of British Columbia recently investigated this claim. The evidence, however, showed the complete opposite. The research showed that instead of creating learning difficulties, learning two languages at once has benefits including greater auditory sensitivity, and even enhanced visual sensitivity.
"There just isn't any really good evidence of language confusion," stated Werker. "I'm not quite sure where the idea came from, but it's something that North Americans in particular seem to worry about. Because elsewhere, bilingualism — even in Canada — is just considered natural, because in most places in the world people speak more than one language."
Recent studies show that the benefits of growing up bilingual continue as children get older. According to the study people who speak more than one language are better at prioritizing tasks and working on multiple projects at one time.
"We would probably refer to most of these cognitive advantages as multitasking," says Judith Kroll, professor of psychology at Penn State. "Bilinguals seem to be better at this type of perspective taking."
The roots of these enhanced multi-tasking skills come from the way bilingual individuals mentally negotiate between the languages. When bilinguals speak with each other, they can easily slip in and out of both languages, often selecting the word or phrase from the language that most clearly expresses their thoughts.
Studies conducted by The Journal of Psychology and Aging showed the bilingual advantage was greater for older participants. Researchers found that "bilingualism appears to offset age-related losses" in certain mental processes.
The researchers used the Simon task, a test that examines one's mental ability by having the test taker respond to red or blue lights that flash on the computer screen. The test found that participants who knew more than one language were able to respond more quickly to the stimuli.
In addition to the Simon Task test, psychologist Ellen Bialystock found that bilingual Alzheimer's patients were diagnosed, on average, 4.3 years later and reported the first onset of symptoms 5.1 years later than their monolingual counterparts. Additionally, even with advanced brain deterioration, bilingual patients performed as well as monolingual patients with less brain deterioration. "They can cope with the disease for longer," Bialystock said.
Research shows that one does not have to learn a certain language to procure these cognitive advantages. Learning any second language will provide the same benefits for one's brain. The research suggests that even learning sign language produces the same benefits as learning a spoken language.
The overwhelming amount of research says that being bilingual will keep you sharper for longer. Bilingualism is more than being able to speak to people of another culture. Being bilingual is also a way to keep your mind active and quick.
"The bottom line is that bilingualism is good for you," stated Kroll.