Multiple languages and brain function
We discussed last time the rather glowing review by Time magazine (July 29) of Utah's fledgling program to teach foreign languages to children beginning in first grade. This education will continue to be available to students as they progress on through their education in participating schools.
In ninth grade, advanced-placement courses will be available, and reportedly BYU and the University of Utah are involved in offering university-level courses.
We indicated that language-learning ability is most intensely developed at about nine months of age. But it is still very active for children in general, and of course language-learning is still possible -- though with increasing difficulty and effort -- even in our senior years.
We reported a study by the Swedish military. Its 13-month course makes fluent speakers of even very difficult languages in these young adults. Of interest was the fact that four regions of their brains showed "growth" (detected with brain scans, the specific type not further identified) in the hippocampus (memory and learning) and three regions of the cerebral cortex (higher functioning, as a general statement). The researchers surmised that this growth was due to increased insulating sheathing of the nerve cell processes and interconnections (i.e., more white matter or myelin).
But we reviewed a couple of weeks ago that, at least in the hippocampus, a certain amount of production of new nerve cells occurs even during adulthood. That study depended on experiments that are currently not possible to replicate, so we'll have to leave unresolved the question of whether the young Swedes' brain growth was really due just to myelinization.
But let's turn to brain function as influenced by studying multiple languages. Time reports that multilingual persons are "better at reasoning, at multitasking, at grasping and reconciling conflicting ideas." One test analyzing multitasking is the Stroop test, which I've tried. It's not easy. Participants are shown flash cards (or electronic images) each with the name of a color. But sometimes the word is written in the same color as indicated by the name, and at other times in a contrasting color. The goal is to quickly utter the name of the actual color rather than what the word says -- so if the word red is written in green, the correct answer is "green."
Multilingualists turn out to be considerably faster and more accurate at this than monolingualists. But the difference is most pronounced in children and senior citizens rather than in young adults. The reason for this is not clear.
What is clear, established by other research, is that bilingual brains (let's hold it to just two languages here) are more efficient than others. They're not necessarily "smarter" but they don't have to work as hard to get a job done, or to switch between various mental tasks (multi-tasking). Furthermore, this efficiency may well be responsible for greater mental longevity among bilingual persons. These folks average a bit more than four extra years of mental clarity before any form of dementia becomes manifest. That difference extends to more than five years for Alzheimer patients specifically. Unfortunately, data are not apparently available as to whether learning a second language in one's more adult years will be helpful, though I've often seen it recommended.
All this leaves me with many questions. Does mastery of musical instruments, say the violin, produce mental advantages similar to those of a second language? I've encountered many persons in the academic world that have made me ponder this. Do persons with ADHD perform better on the Stroop test than others -- or will they just lose their focus more quickly?
But I do wish I had a second language -- other than just my native "southern Utah-ese"!
• Duane Jeffery is an emeritus professor of biology at Brigham Young University.
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