Two Tongues: Better Than One

The unexpected benefits of bilingualism

As school districts under dire financial pressure continue to narrow their focus to “core curriculums” and teach to the test of No Child Left Behind, foreign-language education is faltering. It shouldn’t. Joey Vento will no doubt be unhappy to hear it, but in an interview in yesterday’s New York Times, cognitive neuroscientist Ellen Bialystok explained how knowing a second language enhances and alters the way we think. The difference, it turns out, is in the toggling. When a brain knows two languages, it’s better able to focus and switch between tasks, because the executive control center, which makes decisions on what to pay heed to, gets more “exercise” and is more efficient. It’s better, in other words, at separating the wheat from the chaff. Even on nonverbal test problems, bilinguals do better, as brain scanning shows: “It appears like they’re using a different kind of a network. … Their whole brain appears to rewire because of bilingualism.”

In one experiment, Bialystok put bilingual and monolingual individuals in a driving simulator, then gave them additional tasks to perform while they drove—the equivalent of using a cell phone while at the wheel. Driving performance in both groups suffered, but the bilinguals were better at doing two things at once than those who only spoke one tongue.

In a separate study, Bialystock showed that bilinguals develop Alzheimer’s disease symptoms significantly later than monolinguals—five or six years later, on average. She notes that the bilinguals still had the disease, but were able to continue functioning at normal levels for longer. Alas, she also explains that dusting off your old high-school French to order off a menu now and then won’t help you maintain cognitive function: “You have to use both languages all the time.”