Being able to speak two languages is a fantastic skill to have. Whether for the purpose of holidaying or living overseas, or for a career such as professional translation, being bilingual opens up opportunities that are not possible for those who are monolingual.
Research has also shown that those who are bilingual may actually have other advantages over those who aren’t. A study from the University of Edinburgh has examined the impact of bilingualism on cognitive aging and found that learning a second language may slow down the decline.
Further research is required in order to understand why this is – whether it is the increased mental stimulation of knowing two languages that slows down cognitive decline, or whether it is simply that those with high cognitive performance are more likely to acquire a second language in the first place.
It’s not just the elderly who benefit. Ellen Bialystock of Toronto’s York University Cognitive Development Lab has observed that:
“Being bilingual has certain cognitive benefits and boosts the performance of the brain, especially one of the most important areas known as the executive control system.”
She observes that children who speak two languages and regularly use both are better at multitasking and at prioritising tasks than monolingual children.
Bialystock’s research also showed that bilingualism had a marked effect on fighting the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. She conducted a study looking at 211 individuals with Alzheimer’s, which found that those who were bilingual had been diagnosed on average 4.3 years later than those who were monolingual. The bilingual cohort had also reported the onset of symptoms 5.1 years later than their monolingual counterparts.
Of course, all of this may seem a long way off in terms of relevance to those living and working in the professional translation field currently, but the early research that has been conducted certainly bodes well for the future of these individuals.
While more studies will be needed before the true impact on the brain of learning a second language is understood, what is already known about this fascinating area of neuroscience may well encourage more individuals to learn a second language, something which the linguistic community will no doubt celebrate.
Judith Kroll, a Penn State University psychologist, sums up the relationship between bilingualism and cognitive function:
“The important thing that we have found is that both languages are open for bilinguals. In other words, there are alternatives available in both languages. Even though language choices may be on the tip of their tongue, bilinguals rarely make a wrong choice.
“The bilingual is somehow able to negotiate between the competition of the languages. The speculation is that these cognitive skills come from this juggling of languages.”
What other advantages does bilingualism bring? Share your thoughts via the comments box.