## What bilinguals tell us about Mind and Brain

Yesterday afternoon, here at AAAS-2011, I attended a superb symposium: "Crossing Borders in Language Science: What Bilinguals Tell Us About Mind and Brain". Here's the abstract:

More people in the world are bilingual than monolingual. Historically, the component disciplines that comprise the language sciences have focused almost exclusively on monolingual speakers of a single language and largely on English as the universal language. In the past decade, there has been a shift in these disciplines to acknowledge the consequences of bilingualism for characterizing language, understanding the way languages are learned and used, and identifying the consequences of negotiating life in two languages for cognitive and brain processes. Recent studies show that bilingualism confers advantages to cognitive control at all stages of life, from infancy to old age; that contrary to popular belief, being exposed to two languages from early childhood does not create confusion but instead modulates the trajectory of language development; that signed and spoken languages produce a form of bilingualism that is similar to bilingualism in two spoken languages; and that the continual activity of both languages affects brain function and structure. Despite the excitement surrounding these discoveries, we do not understand how exposure to and use of two languages creates the observed consequences for bilingual minds and brains. Addressing these questions requires a language science that is both cross-disciplinary and international. The aim of this symposium is to illustrate the most exciting of these new discoveries and to begin to consider their causal basis.

There were six informative and thought-provoking presentations:

Janet F. Werker, University of British Columbia,"Perceptual Foundations for Bilingual Acquisition in Infancy"
Judith F. Kroll, Pennsylvania State University, "The Bilingual Is a Mental Juggler: Behavioral and Electrophysiological Evidence"
Karen Emmorey, San Diego State University, "Bilingualism Across Signed and Spoken Languages"
Teresa Bajo, University of Granada, "Variations in Inhibitory Control in Language Selection During Production and Comprehension"
Sonja A. Kotz, Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, "The Impact of Cognitive Functions on Bilingual Processing: Neuroimaging Evidence"
Ellen Bialystok, York University, "Protective Effects of Bilingualism for Cognitive Aging and Dementia"

12. ### David Green said,

February 19, 2011 @ 10:59 pm

For what it's worth, a year in a boarding school in Germany at age 15 (with 2 years of HS German before, and 3 of Latin) made me *almost* bilingual (I think) in English and German — in the sense that in ordinary conversation I experienced no problems and could generally pass as a native German (possibly from some rather obscure dialect region). So I'd be inclinded to go with Breffi.

13. ### Antonella Sorace said,

February 20, 2011 @ 3:49 am

In Edinburgh we have been investigating these findings of cognitive benefits of bilingualism, but also looking at actual language development in bilinguals. We're looking at bilinguals of all ages – from simultaneous or consecutive bilingual children to adult second language learners. Some of this research may shed light on the question of critical period and also whether bidialectalism (see the comments by Silke and army1987) is cognitively equivalent to bilingualism in two clearly different languages.

European readers may also be interested in our information service called Bilingualism Matters, which disseminates information about the benefits of early bilingualism among parents, teachers, health professionals and policy makers. We are based in Edinburgh but are working elsewhere in Europe as well.

14. ### David J. Littleboy said,

February 20, 2011 @ 4:41 am

"After learning a third language, it becomes progressively easier to study other languages."

Maybe. When I first started learning Japanese, one of the students in the course was a guy who knew every Romance and Slavic language you could name. None of his tricks worked for Japanese, and he dropped out. Sometimes you have to actually do the work.

I'm interested in the idea that there isn't really a "critical period". Watching adults (mostly Americans, though) learn Japanese as a second language, we all get to a certain level and then get a life and don't get much better. I spent many lonely evenings curled up in a chair with schlock Japanese novels in my mid to late twenties. In the last 20 years, though, the only "Japanese" novels I've made it through were some translated mysteries our CEO had along when I assumed incorrectly that there'd be a bookstore near the boarding gate for a 14-hour flight. (I work as a technical translator, but the linguistic issues in technical writing are rather limited, so my Japanese is, if anything, getting worse despite living here.) In contrast to we mere mortals, the true bilinguals on the radio here are amazing: far glibber than I am in English, they blather along at amazing speeds, blithely switching back and forth.

15. ### David J. Littleboy said,

February 20, 2011 @ 4:45 am

Clarification: "we all get to a certain level"; each of us gets to our own private, unique, different, and not the same plateu.

16. ### army1987 said,

February 20, 2011 @ 8:25 am

(a) that bilinguals have a bit more trouble with certain tasks (e.g. their lexical-decision reaction times are on average somewhat longer); but (b) their "executive function" system gets a constant work-out suppressing the activation of alternatives in the language not being used (especially in speaking)

This is exactly what I sometimes “feel” when I speak both English and Italian (for a non-negligible amount of time) on the same day.

@David Green:
It definitely depends on the individual. I've met people like you, but I've also had a teacher from Poland who, despite having been in Italy for 16 years, had such a bad accent, as well as troubles with grammar and vocabulary, that it was quite hard to understand him.

17. ### Stephen R. Anderson said,

February 20, 2011 @ 10:33 am

@ Mark:

As a member of the AAAS Program Committee, I took your comments quite seriously, and I just talked about these issues with the person who's primarily responsible for organizing the meeting. I could see four potential things AAAS might raise as issues about free presentation of meeting content on the web: a) potential impact on meeting attendance (a major cash cow for AAAS); b) overall cost; c) impact on the company that currently does the CDs of symposia; and d) barriers presented by the hotels and congress centers where the meetings take place. I'm pleased to report that they are in fact trying to move in the direction you suggest, and that a) and c) above are not seen as issues. b) is an issue, and d) remains a problem: the hotels and congress centers mend to maintain various sorts of monopoly on A/V services that can have the effect of massively inflating the cost of any such operation on the part of conference organizers like AAAS.

Anyway, at present it appears that AAAS does make at least the small number of plenary lectures at the meeting available for free via their web page. They are currently working on expanding this to include the Topical lectures, and a limited set of symposia (especially those seen as particularly hot topics, and designated as "seminars"). But the idea of making all symposia available, with accompanying PowerPoints (sorry for the unnecessary product placement….), is something they'd like to do. I have suggested that they get in touch with you directly for suggestions about how this might be done while keeping their costs within reason.

They're really not as far out of touch as might be suggested, and they certainly see the advantage of making the science available freely to the broadest possible audience, in part as an advertisement for what AAAS does and in part just on general grounds of free interchange of scientific information.

I hope you find that encouraging.

18. ### army1987 said,

February 20, 2011 @ 12:28 pm

whether bidialectalism (see the comments by Silke and army1987) is cognitively equivalent to bilingualism in two clearly different languages
This is no better defined than “different languages” (and the “dialect with an army and a navy” definition definitely doesn't work here), but I think there's a continuum here. I am a native Italian speaker and I've studied several languages in my life (though the only one I'm fluent in right now is English), and speaking other Romance languages “felt” somewhat different than speaking other languages. (See also David J. Littleboy's comment.)

19. ### army1987 said,

February 20, 2011 @ 12:29 pm

(The first two lines in the previous post were supposed to be a blockquote.)

20. ### Silke said,

February 20, 2011 @ 1:08 pm

There are dialects in German where I can't even remotely follow a conversation but could get a good idea by reading it and that is even though I was fluent in one of them as a kid.

If I read a not too difficult Dutch text I can pretty much get the story.

The difference is one is a written language with a more or less fixed orthography the other is in flux and open to writers' inventions. And one qualifies as a foreign language and the other does not, but I think brainwise they should both require the same kind of "software".

When I learned modern Greek on the ground I found the key to the language once I had gotten a French self-learn book instead of my German one, all of a sudden lots of "bridges" showed up.

And depending on the language I speak or spoke my body language changes with it. I was for example incapable of talking Greek without wildly gesticulating which in German I don't do.

Judging from myself I'd find a language that uses different lettering extremely hard to acquire. Also a language with not "bridges" would be quite something.

Judging from my experience in multilingual company: whether you have an accent or not is destiny and based on talent. There is no fixed relation to the rest of what constitutes language skill. Those who lose an accent easily have of course a huge advantage when learning it with the "natives" because they tend to get understood from day one which I find highly motivating.

BTW at school I was comparatively bad at learning languages because they did it without letting me first get thoroughly the rhythm and the melody of it BEFORE they start on the words and/or sentences.

21. ### magdalena said,

February 21, 2011 @ 8:31 am

I was born to a Czech mother and Polish father. My parents understood each other's native language perfectly, but never spoke it to each other. So, my father would speak Polish to my mother, who would answer right back in Czech. I grew up listening to this and speaking Czech to my mother and Polish to my father – even when speaking to both of them. I would switch languages comfortably, completely and almost imperceptibly to myself. My school friends found it a bit confusing at first! I also lived in India as a child and learnt English and Hindi (Hindi alas is completely forgotten by now). Unsurprisingly, I have worked as a translator and interpreter all my life.
I visualise my three main languages as something like three different rooms inside my mind, with different sets of "furniture" – or three distinct systems working according to different rules. I have never used words or structures from one language when speaking another – or even considered it. I find it very easy to imitate the sounds of a foreign language, e.g. I can still repeat Hindi phrases correctly without understanding them, and my high school Russian teacher always said that if I would remember my Russian grammar as beautifully as I could speak Russian and read it out loud, he would die happy ;-)

22. ### Jerry Friedman said,

February 21, 2011 @ 6:51 pm

@MYL: Thanks, that's interesting. I think I've heard about people losing a language to brain trauma, but that might be different from growing up monolingual in a multilingual environment, if anyone does that.

@magdalena: Some people deliberately raise their children the way your parents raised you (linguistically). It's called the one-parent-one-language model (OPOL). See for instance the LSA's FAQ (written partly by Antonella Sorace, who commented in this thread) if you're interested.

23. ### Jim Melfi said,

February 21, 2011 @ 7:04 pm

Mark: I agree heartily that it IS a shame that AAAS doesn't put their video symposiums up like TED and many other similar sites. I take your point that there is an ever-growing market for video talks, lectures, conferences, and symposiums. I would hope that AAAS makes this simple change sooner than later. Jim Melfi, Founder, VideoTalks.org.

24. ### Ray Dillinger said,

February 21, 2011 @ 9:47 pm

There's this thing kids do sometimes as a game, where they rapidly (sometimes in just a few weeks; in unusual groups the process can be elaborated for several years) develop a dialect or language deliberately impenetrable to those not in the in-group. But it goes beyond that. These languages continue to evolve rapidly for as long as the "game" goes on, far beyond what would be required to achieve the goal of deliberate impenetrability. The most notable examples, of course, go on to become full constructed languages in the style of Tolkien, but less extreme examples are a lot more common than we generally acknowledge.

I've talked with people who've created such clique languages (unfortunately when they got to college, so usually long after the period of active use was over) to try to get a sketch of how four or five of these things worked; I'm trying to document the game. But one thing I've noticed a lot is that the folk who, as kids, had experience playing this game, usually preserve the ability to learn unfamiliar languages, fluently, as adults.

Correlation, of course, is not causation. It's likely, in my opinion, that these people had preexisting linguistic skills and that's why the game appealed to them in the first place. Then again, practice helps develop skills. It's also likely that the experience of deliberately creating a language has strengthened their ability to understand the structure or memorize the vocabulary of unfamiliar languages.

25. ### Elika said,

February 21, 2011 @ 10:44 pm

sounds like quite an interesting symposium; bilingualism is certainly a growing reality in America and it's too bad that there's so much ill-informed resistance from schools and parents. WRT the critical period debate, I've been reading up on this for a project recently and one thing that's been striking me as interesting is that different sub-fields of language show critical period effects to greater or lesser degrees. While it's well documented (though somewhat contentious) that you find phonological or syntactic errors in second language learners, even when controlling for length-of-exposure, in other subfields, for instance semantics/word-learning you don't seem to have the same issues…we're good at learning new words in our L1 and in an L2, and don't seem to be worse at this as adults; why this is the case seems to be an intriguing and open question (see interesting work by helen neville and lisa sanders on this topic, and thanks to Lila Gleitman for pointing out the phenomenon to me in the first place)

26. ### Antonios said,

February 23, 2011 @ 8:47 pm

I've had a lot of exposure to portunhol, or speakers predominantly of Spanish learning Portuguese and mixing the languages up when speaking Portuguese.

What I think I've noticed is that those who have a better Portuguese accent are much less likely to speak in Portunhol rather than straight Portuguese. Switching between the accents and changing the shape of the mouth seems to be the necessary brake on mixing the two languages up.

Is there something in this, or have I just noticed something that fit my theory, namely that accent plays a very important role in not mixing up languages when speaking?

27. ### ohwilleke said,

February 24, 2011 @ 7:58 pm

I am deeply skeptical of the research on the benefits of bilingualism, mostly because a large share of the research looks like it has "fit immigrant hypothesis" alternative explanations that are available instead.

28. ### peter said,

March 9, 2011 @ 12:09 pm

Stephen R. Anderson said (February 20, 2011 @ 10:33 am)

"As a member of the AAAS Program Committee, I took your comments quite seriously, and I just talked about these issues with the person who's primarily responsible for organizing the meeting. I could see four potential things AAAS might raise as issues about free presentation of meeting content on the web: . . . d) barriers presented by the hotels and congress centers where the meetings take place."

But the AAAS is the customer here. Surely the AAAS chooses of its own volition where to hold its meetings, and could make the elimination of such barriers a condition of its choice of hotel/congress center. I had heard something about a Global Recession, which surely would reduce the negotiating power of the venues for such events.

[(myl) This was also my reaction. But the negotiation between hotels and groups scheduling meetings has many dimensions, including room rates and so on, and this may not be a high enough priority in the mix. Also, in some cases the hotel may have an exclusive contract with some outside A/V outfit, which they are not easily able to break or modify. And finally, these deals are negotiated several years in advance, so changes can't happen immediately.

Still, they're already recording the audio, and you could do a lot just by syncing the audio with the slides.]

29. ### Mar Rojo said,

June 2, 2011 @ 2:02 am

Isn't it also possible that similar cognitive effects can be gained from being bidialectal? If so, shouldn't we strongly resist standardists' pressure for us all to become monodialectal?

30. ### Stefan said,

December 18, 2011 @ 1:23 pm

"More people in the world are bilingual than monolingual"

I would question this – Sources?