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Brains benefit from multilingualism
19 October 2009
Suomen Akatemia (Academy of Finland)
For a considerable time already there has been discussion within scientific circles about whether knowing and using multiple languages could possibly have positive effects on the human brain and thinking. There have been a number of international studies on the subject, which indicate that the ability to use more than one language brings an individual a considerable advantage.
The report of the research team appointed by the European Commission, ”The Contribution of Multilingualism to Creativity”, presents the first known macro analysis based on the available evidence, which has been conducted by searching through several studies and giving particular attention on recent research on the brain.
David Marsh, specialized planner at the Continuing Professional Development Centre of Jyväskylä University, who coordinated the international research team behind the study, says that especially the research conducted within neurosciences offers an increasing amount of strong evidence of versatile knowledge of languages being beneficial for the usage of an individual’s brain.
- The research report brings forth six main areas where multilingualism and hence the mastery of complex processes of thought seem to put people in advantage. These include learning in general, complex thinking and creativity, mental flexibility, interpersonal and communication skills, and even a possible delay in the onset of age-related mental diminishment later in life, Marsh relates.
One of the central cerebral areas highlighted in the research report is the one responsible for memory function. People rely especially on the short-term memory when thinking, learning and making decisions
- It is obvious that enhanced memory can have a profound impact on cognitive function, says David Marsh. - This may be one reason why the multilingual shows superior performance in handling complex and demanding problem-solving tasks when compared to monolinguals. They seem to be able to have an advantage in handling certain thinking processes, March continues.
It was assumed earlier that differences in the brain would only occur if a person is bi- or trilingual, that is with a very high command of different languages. The recently published research suggests, however, that changes in the brain’s electrical activity may occur already in the beginnings of learning a new language.
- This is inspirational for anyone who has an opportunity to learn, or otherwise keep an additional language active in their lives, Marsh rejoices.
According to Marsh, there is also room for improvement in language education, since children should be encouraged to engage in higher order thinking about meaningful content that fires up the brain.
- Learning a language strictly as a separate subject in the curriculum does not work as effectively for a broad range of young people as compared to embedding second language learning into other subjects. Thinking about numbers, for example, does figure naturally in a lot of school learning as well as in real life outside the school, which supports learning and knowing mathematics. The same may not always be true of foreign languages, Marsh argues.
The results of the recently published study show that even though it is difficult to prove the existence of a direct causal link, it is likely that multilingualism produces a special advantage in utilizing a person’s brain capacity as creatively as possible.