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Bilingual Multitasking

With the British media commenting on the revelations of the 2011 Census we learned not only that Polish is the second spoken language in the UK, but also that proportion of the population who say that English is not their first language is now as high as 8%. It is irresistible to think about the impact this tendency is going to have on the future generations and British reality.  But instead of racial tensions, politics and post-colonial attitudes, this story took me back in time to when I was studying to become a teacher and marvelling at the ease with which children acquire language. Ever since that time, and still, I am fascinated by the concept of bilingualism. One of the world-known gurus in this field is Ellen Bialystok, who’s name I memorised not only because her surname sounds like an English version of a Polish town, but also due to the research carried out for my thesis into learners’ autonomy. In a fairly recent interview for the New York Times, Ellen Bialystok talks about how the perception of the bilingualism has evolved and is now no longer a disadvantage which only ‘confuses’ children. I think about it every time I see a mum speaking to her child in Polish and hearing the answers in English. As Ellen Bialystok puts it, bilingualism is a gift, and she describes the process in the following way:

If you have two languages and you use them regularly, the way the brain’s networks work is that every time you speak, both languages pop up and the executive control system has to sort through everything and attend to what’s relevant in the moment. Therefore the bilinguals use that system more, and it’s that regular use that makes that system more efficient.

Therefore, not only we have a system that works, but also that system makes us ‘work’ better. The advantages of operating this system on regular basis, that is being bilingual, are many:

  • Bilingualism helps forestall the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. A study published in 2004 found that normally ageing bilinguals had better cognitive functioning than normally ageing monolinguals. Also the bilinguals showed Alzheimer’s symptoms five or six years later than those who spoke only one language.
  • Bilinguals are better at multitasking. Bilinguals and monolinguals were put to a test by being put into a driving stimulator. Through headphones they were given extra tasks to do, as if they were talking on the phone whilst driving. The researchers measured how much worse their driving got. It is worth mentioning that everybody’s driving got worse, which only proves the point that driving and talking on a phone is not recommended. Nevertheless, the bilinguals’ driving didn’t drop as much, as their brains are used to focusing on what’s relevant at the time and not getting distracted.
  • Bilingual adults learn new words easier than monolinguals. Bilinguals use a variety of word-learning      strategies with similar efficiency and are less susceptible to interference from conflicting orthographic information during learning.
  • Linguistic input co-activates both languages in bilinguals – when bilingual hear or read words in one language, partially overlapping linguistic structures in the other language also are activated.

It’s been suggested that an ideal situation for raising a bilingual child is when the mother (or any other person who spends the most time with the child) is a speaker of one language and they are ‘surroundered by the second language’, i.e.  the family lives in a country where the second language is widely spoken. With a little consequence it is fairly easy to maintain such set up, nevertheless, children’s brains are like sponges and acquire enormous amounts of information in all kinds of situations with no effort at all. Another important thing is that bilingualism connects children to their ancestors and by means of language we pass down our heritage.

So I guess the bottom line is: be merry, learn languages, and enjoy the perks!

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