One Brain, Two Languages: Are Bilinguals More Intelligent?

April 26, 2013 by totalityservices

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Being bilingual is something many people would envy you for. You can communicate with a wider range of people, you have more chances of getting a good job and it seems you are smarter than monolingual people. This is what has been claimed in an interesting article written by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee[1]. But, is it really true?

Bilingualism has been a mystery for most of the 20th century, but in recent decades studies in neuroscience have improved enormously. Researchers once believed that a second language would obstruct the performance of your brain. In a certain way they were right. There is evidence of an interference of the two language systems and it has been proved that both systems are active simultaneously, even when using only one language. This is not a disadvantage; on the contrary, this is, in fact the strength for bilingual people.

It has been demonstrated that bilinguals perform better in certain activities involving the area of the prefrontal cortex (Michelle Martin-Rhee and Ellen Bialystok, 2004[2]). This area is responsible for the executive function of our brain, a system we use in tasks such as selective attentive focus, distraction resistance, decision making and problem solving.

Why do bilinguals perform better in such tasks?  The answer lies in their heightened ability to monitor their environment: they have to switch language often and this works as training for their brain so that it becomes better at monitoring what surrounds it. This language switching in bilingual brains requires keeping track of changes around them, allowing them to perform better in certain activities.

Bilingualism is beneficial not only for children, but for elderly people, too. A study conducted on older citizens speaking English and Spanish revealed that those with a higher level of bilingualism showed more resistance to developing diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s.

The sad news is that not everyone is lucky enough to have been raised by parents who speak two different languages and brought up bilingual. But don’t lose hope because learning a language is always beneficial, whatever your age. A study conducted by T.C. Cooper (1987)[3], in fact, found that students who studied a foreign language in high school had better Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores, and that each year of foreign language study was found to be connected with higher verbal and math scores in the SAT test.

These are all amazing advantages bilinguals benefit from, but does speaking more than one language make you smarter than monolingual people? The answer is no. Despite performing better in the above activities and despite the social and cultural advantages, being bilingual does not affect the IQ of individuals and does not make them more intelligent than monolingual people.


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