What bilinguals tell us about Mind and Brain

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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"

Unfortunately, unless you were among the 70-odd people in room 146A of the Washington Convention Center from 1:30 to 4:30 on Feb. 18, 2011, your options for getting at this information are now quite limited. You can contact the AAAS, send them $26 plus $2 shipping, and eventually receive an audio CD of the symposium — though without the slides, this experience will be somewhat frustrating. You can add "handouts" in .pdf format for $5 each — I'm not sure whether this is $5 per presentation or $5 per symposium; nor am I sure exactly how/where to get them, or whether you can count on finding them (no one has yet contacted me, as far as I know, about supplying the "handout" — i.e. the slides — for my own symposium presentation this afternoon).

So if you succeed in going through all the steps required to obtain the audio and the associated pdfs, you might be able to listen to the audio CD while paging through the pdf, and thus try to get at the content of this symposium. I don't know how many people actually do this, but I'd guess that the modal number per individual presentation will be zero or not far above it.

By my (probably inaccurate) count, this was one of 154 symposiums organized for AAAS 2011.

It's a darn shame, in my opinion, that the AAAS doesn't put videos of these symposiums on the web, along the lines of TED lectures and the like.  If they did that, I feel that many of the presentations would deserve (and get) tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of views. I've made this suggestion to several people within AAAS, but since the cultural conservatism of American intellectuals is perhaps rivaled only by that of the Saudi religious authorities, I suspect that a few decades will pass before any such thing happens.

While you're waiting, you can use the clues in a symposium announcement to look for relevant content that does happen to be available on line. Thus for the last of the six talks in yesterday's "What Bilinguals Tell Us About Mind and Brain" symposium, you could look here or here or here.  If I have time, I'll summarize some of this work in a later post.


  1. Silke said,

    February 19, 2011 @ 12:40 pm

    Once upon a time when dialects were still widely spoken it was normal for lots of kids to live a close to bilingual life while being members of a monolingual society.

    In my youth in Germany dialects were considered signals of low social status and vigorously fougt against by the presumably mostly having grown up without the experience/privilege teachers.

    When I think of all the richness and the colourfulness I met whenever I learned a new one at least rudimentarily I could cry. These days it is all mostly gone, all of us speak TV and assume that we need paid for teachers in order to acquire the skill of communicating in more than one language.

  2. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 19, 2011 @ 1:13 pm

    @MYL: Maybe you can answer a question I've been curious about. Is there a disability that affects acquisition of a second language more than mastery of the first, or one that causes people to become largely monolingual in a bilingual environment? (I've heard people say that they "can't" learn foreign languages.)

    [(myl) There are certainly case studies that show effects of injury or disease on polyglots that are differentiated by language — how typical this is I don't know. There are also well-documented individual differences in aptitude (and motivation) for various aspects of second-language learning. Whether there's any interesting connection between the first issue and the second is not known to me. I'll poke around a bit and see what more I can learn about both of these issues.]

    By the way, I believe video equipment is now so cheap and easy to use that presenters could have themselves recorded by audience members and put the recordings on line themselves, unless the AAAS is tyrannical enough to bar authorized recording. The quality wouldn't be as good as TED talks, but it might be a lot better than nothing.

  3. TS said,

    February 19, 2011 @ 1:14 pm

    "More people in the world are bilingual than monolingual"

    Is there a good reference for this? I am assuming here that bilingual is defined as: "A person who uses or is able to use two languages, especially with equal fluency.", and that people who know a second language but are not really fluent in it are not counted. If the statement is "the majority of people have some knowledge in a second language", then I guess that is true, but bilingual?

    So, any reference that gives detailed numbers? Of course some of it depends on the definition of language vs. dialect. I am assuming here that, say, a speaker of Mandarin and Cantonese is bilingual, but that say Mandarin and Dongbei dialect might not count. And I would not assume that all or even most people in India, Arab countries, China, or the Philippines are fluent enough in Hindi, standard Arabic, Mandarin, or Filipino to count as bilingual. So, where do I find the numbers? Thanks.

  4. Bobbie said,

    February 19, 2011 @ 1:22 pm

    >…" the cultural conservatism of American intellectuals is perhaps rivaled only by that of Saudi mullahs…"
    Funny! and true! But what a shame!

  5. army1987 said,

    February 19, 2011 @ 1:36 pm

    I think that if you define a bilingual person as someone who speaks at least two mutually unintelligible dialects on a daily basis, the claim is likely true. (For example, most people in Italy younger than about 65 and older than about 30 would normally talk in their dialect to friends and family and in Italian to everyone else, and the dialects of regions far away from Tuscany or Rome are as different from Italian as Catalan is from Spanish.)

  6. Jason Merchant said,

    February 19, 2011 @ 2:09 pm

    @TS: Look at Blackwell's Handbook of Bilingualism for excellent overview papers on all these aspects and more (for that particular claim, I'll have to check when I get back to Chicago); and at Bialystok's work in particular for the best science (known to me) that shows the cognitive advantages (perhaps persisting into old age as well) of bilingualism. This research should be much better known than it is, and it is our responsibility to teach it in intro linguistics courses as well. (The amount of miseducation and misperceptions on these topics out there—even among people who should know, such as reading specialists—is astounding.)

    I've been giving Mackey and King's excellent "The Bilingual Edge" to teachers of bilingual kids for a few years now, with good results (it's written for nonlinguists: parents and teachers primarily).

    (As an aside: videoing and posting the presentations is a great idea, long overdue. I've been asked—and consented—regularly abroad for permission to video and post my lectures [in particular at the ENS in Paris and in Korea], but have long wondered why we didn't do more of that here as well. TED is a great model.)

  7. Harleigh Kyson Jr. said,

    February 19, 2011 @ 3:32 pm

    It seem rather obvious to me that people who learn two languages well before age twelve, when puberty sets in and language learning becomes a lot of work, have certain advantages over monolingual speakers:

    First they learn very early that what can be expressed as one word in a certain given language must be expressed as two or three in a second language and that grammatical systems are not congruent.

    This knowledge can be reinforced if they study systematically the grammars of the two languages that they speak, helping them to achieve even better control over both languages than is typical for speakers of a single language.

    Finally, when they start to learn a third language, even after reaching puberty, it will be much easier for them than for monolingual speakers.

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

    [(myl) The experimentally demonstrated psychological advantages of bilingualism are actually quite different from this. The basic finding is that the two languages are always in competition, even in a monolingual setting, and the result is (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), which (c) causes bilinguals to have better average performance on a wide range of tests of non-linguistic executive function; and (d) apparently creates a "cognitive reserve" which gives them about 5 years of extra protection against the symptoms of Alzheimers and similar dementias.]

  8. Tim Friese said,

    February 19, 2011 @ 3:51 pm

    Mark, your point about the conservatism of American academics is well put, but the reference to Saudi mullahs is misguided. The term mullah derives from Arabic via Persian and is mainly relevant in Iran and the greater Persian influenced sphere. I'm not exactly sure when it started being used, but I believe it goes back to early Islam, where (especially?) non-Arab converts to Islam gained legitimacy and orthopraxy by having an Arab Muslim /mawlaa/ to consult with. This mawlaa would be a normal lay believer, and would help guide the new believer. (At the least, this is how the relationship of Arab Muslim mawlaa to foreign convert is depicted in Arabic-language TV series and movies.)
    Sunni Islam generally focuses little on a clergy like the mullahs of Iran, but the most relevant terms in an Arab Sunni context are /sheex/ for basically any learned, devout, or just elderly Muslim man and /?imaam/ for the leader of mosque services. Even then, however, the /?imaam/ is more like a lay minister in the Catholic sense, as he is not exactly a member of a clergy.

    [(myl) Apologies for using the wrong word in deploying what was of course an entirely uninformed stereotype. I've changed "mullahs" to "religious authorities", which is still an uninformed stereotype but perhaps not so linguistically inappropriate.]

  9. Leonardo Boiko said,

    February 19, 2011 @ 5:33 pm

    @Harleigh: I agree, but the cool thing about this (awesome)! research work is that they advance our knowledge from “seems obvious” to proved true (or not…). Even better: they’re studying why it’s true.

  10. Breffni said,

    February 19, 2011 @ 6:20 pm


    … puberty sets in and language learning becomes a lot of work…

    It's worth noting that Bialystok is a sceptic about the notion of a critical period for language acquisition (though perhaps this isn't what you mean). She points out that while it's true that on average younger learners are more successful, this fact doesn't entail that there is a biological capacity for acquisition that shuts down at puberty, or any other age.

  11. Stevenage said,

    February 19, 2011 @ 7:30 pm

    How much does it cost to put together a TED talk? It certainly costs a pretty penny to attend

    [(myl) After a modest initial investment in hardware and software, the marginal cost to make a video recording of a lecture with synchronized slides is not very great. See here for an example of what the results can look like.

    Making it available to the public costs something for bandwidth, but less and less every year. And there are ways to recover those costs. In particular, the AAAS is worried about a trend towards declining membership. One problem, in my opinion, is that only a very small fraction of people interested in supporting science in the U.S. even know what the AAAS is or does. If you could recruit just a fraction of a percent of the potential viewers of online symposia to join, you could (in my opinion) reverse that trend.

    As for the current cost of attending AAAS symposiums, registration for the AAAS meeting this year is $435 for non-members and $355 for members. A one-day pass is $225 for non-members and $185 for members.]

  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?

    Otherwise a very interesting read.

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