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Thread: Bilingualism changes the human brain in a good way

  1. #1
    Advisor Angela's Avatar
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    Bilingualism changes the human brain in a good way

    I'm glad to hear it. :)

    There are links on the page which show that it also helps to stave off dementia...more good news.

    I have some doubts whether one can be truly equally adept at a couple of languages, however. I think that depending on amount of use one will predominate a bit.

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    Elite member arvistro's Avatar
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    Good to know :)
    I guess everyone in this world (except anglo-borns) sooner or later becomes at least bi-lingual.

  3. #3
    Advisor bicicleur's Avatar
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    maybe solving many crosswords or playing chess regularly has a similar influence to the brains

  4. #4
    Satyavrata Maciamo's Avatar
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    The problem with these studies is how vague they are. Here are my remarks:

    1) When they say bilingualism, do they mean people who can speak two languages (fluently, I presume), or people who are actively and regularly using these two languages ? I am (or was) fluent in German, Italian and Spanish, but I haven't spoken them regularly for over 10 years. Learning a new language certainly rewires the brain in some way. But I assume that it would only prevent dementia if that additional language was being used on a regular basis. It would also be interesting to compare how synaptic connections are preserved by just using a language passively (listening, reading) as opposed to actively (speaking, writing). In other terms, do people who use their second language regularly, but in a passive manner (e.g. just watching TV in that language), enjoy the same benefits against dementia as people who speak and write the language on a regular basis ? I would expect that the benefits are preserved, but not as strongly. Then, what are the differences between people who speak two languages at an advanced or native level compared to someone who only speaks a second language at an intermediate level or less ?

    2) What about people who speak several languages ? Do the benefits associated with learning a second language continue to increase with a third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh language ? If so, is the degree of additional benefits the same for each additional language, or getting weaker with each new language, or perhaps even getting stronger as each language reinforces synaptic connections for each word and concept ? I have never seen any study on that matter, although it would be worthwhile.

    3) What exactly are the various benefits of speaking multiple languages beside slowing down the onset of dementia ?

    3.1) Does multilingualism increases verbal IQ ? Is there even a verbal IQ test designed to test more than one language ? Obviously knowing 20,000 words in two languages is as good as knowing 40,000 words in only one language. Being able to understand and use correctly grammar, conjugation and syntax in languages from different families, like say, French, German, Hindi and Japanese, is a sign of higher verbal IQ than to be able to speak several closely related languages, such as, say, French, Italian, Catalan and Castilian.

    3.2) Does multilingualism have any impact on non-verbal IQ as well, considering that the whole brain structure gets reorganised by adding a new language ? Being able to juggle with very different grammatical structures (e.g. English vs Japanese) confers a flexibility of thinking that goes beyond merely verbal abilities. It allows to see and understand things and people differently.

    3.3) Are multilingual people more open-minded ? If so is it because they travel more or are more in contact with different cultures and ways of thinking, or also because of increased brain plasticity ?

    3.4) Multilingualism may even benefits EQ. In my experience learning a language like Japanese can provide new ways of expressing emotions that are not found in European languages. In my experience, I have noticed that people who can learn to pronounce acquired languages as if they were natives tend to be more independent thinkers than people who can't. It's not just intellectual flexibility that is required, but maybe even more so emotional flexibility, and the ability to feel and experience the world differently. Changing pronunciation is like being able to change one's emotional point of view on demand. This is essentially what actors do when faking emotions or adopting specific accents. Pronunciation is coordinated by the right hemisphere of the brain, which also manages emotions and tunes and rhythm of speech.

    4) What are the effects of speaking several languages on one's personality and cultural biases ? Charles V of Habsburg, who spoke five languages fluently, said: "As many languages as a man knows, so many times he is a man." I have personality noticed that my personality changes depending on the language in which I think and speak, and those changes get stronger if I only speak one language for several days or weeks in a row.
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  5. #5
    Advisor Angela's Avatar
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    Those are all really excellent questions but unfortunately I don't know of any empirical studies which attempt to answer them. So, my subjective impressions...

    l. I would think they mean actively using two languages. I also think it depends on when the languages are learned. If brain plasticity decreases with age the greatest effect would be at younger ages, although it would still change brain wiring at any age.

    2. There might be a law of diminishing returns if you keep on adding languages.

    3. My hunch is that it increases verbal IQ. Words and their subtle distinctions in meaning become so important. Whether it increases non-verbal IQ I'm less sure about but I would think that it does. I do agree that the greatest benefits probably come from speaking languages with different grammar and syntax, not from speaking, say, French, Italian and Spanish, which I can tell you doesn't "stretch" your abilities as much.

    I used to think that knowing more than one language would make people more open minded because of travel and also perhaps because of brain plasticity, but I'm not so sure I believe that any more. A great many people know English nowadays, but I don't see that it necessarily makes them more open to other people or other points of view. Their prejudices and initial cultural conditioning are still very obvious to me. Perhaps it depends on the underlying personality of the people involved, their reasons for learning the language, perhaps even the age at which they learn the language. Or perhaps it requires living in a country, a total immersion in a culture. Language is so grounded in culture, indeed the "personality" of a people, that I wonder if someone learning a new language at thirty, for example, and only spending part of their life in a new country can ever be really "bilingual". Even then, with people born in the U.S. and learning English at least by five when they start school certain kinds of family conditioning trumps everything else.

    Pronunciation is also affected by the ability to distinguish subtle differences in sound and rhythm and being able to reproduce them with your mouth and vocal cords. It's like a composer who can "hear" notes perfectly but can't "sing" them or reproduce them vocally. Unless you're a very gifted mimic, which most people aren't, after a certain age you just don't get rid of your accent. After all, how many Meryl Streeps are there? :) Even with actors who are native English speakers, like Australians or Brits, for example, their "American" accent will sometimes falter in the middle of a speech. I always use Henry Kissinger as an example. He's a brilliant man with a brilliant command of the English language but he's very hard to understand because of his still incredibly strong German accent. He obviously just doesn't have an "ear", because he really wasn't all that old, only fourteen when he came.

    That takes me all the way back to what it really means to be bilingual. If you're translating in your head I don't think you're bilingual. Maybe it's related to whether you dream in a language? I don't know. I dream in both Italian and English depending on the setting and people in the dream, but even for me I don't start dreaming mostly in Italian until I've been back for a week or two.

    Slightly off topic, I have wondered once or twice whether, if dementia ever does strike, I'll be one of those people who reverts back to the first, mother language, in my case Italian, and most people surrounding me won't have a clue what I'm saying! Thank goodness I made my children learn Italian, even if they're not really bilingual. :)

    I do remember studies showing that playing chess, doing crosswords etc. has a good effect on the brain. Learning to play an instrument is very beneficial as well. In that regard it's particularly true of the piano if I remember correctly because of the fact that the left and right hand have to play different notes at different speeds and rhythm, etc.. Of course, with some musical instruments other factors come into play. You have to "hear" the notes more when playing the trumpet or violin than when playing the piano, for example.

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