In the s, one of the pioneers of psycholinguistics, Susan Ervin-Tripp, tested Japanese—English bilingual women, asking them to finish sentences in each language. She found that the women ended the sentences very differently depending on which language was used. From this, Ervin-Tripp concluded that human thought takes place within language mindsets, and that bilinguals have different mindsets for each language — an extraordinary idea but one that has been borne out in subsequent studies, and many bilinguals say they feel like a different person when they speak their other language.
These different mindsets are continually in conflict, however, as bilingual brains sort out which language to use. In a revealing experiment with his English-German bilingual group, Athanasopoulos got them to recite strings of numbers out loud in either German or English. Searching for a word in one language - while suppressing the corresponding word in another - gently taxes the brain, helping to train our concentration Credit: Getty Images.
Are there really two separate minds in a bilingual brain? In order to assess the effect that trying to understand the Syntaflake language had on my brain, I took another test before and after the snowflake task. In these so-called flanker tasks , patterns of arrows appeared on the screen and I had to press the left or right button according to the direction of the arrow in the centre.
Sometimes the surrounding pattern of arrows was confusing, so by the end of the first session my shoulders had been hunched somewhere near my ears and I was exhausted from concentrating.
How can that be? I had to block out my impulse and heed the rule instead. The aim is to say which colour each word is written in, but this is tricky, because we read the word much quicker than we process the colour of the letters. Located on the frontal lobe, it is a toolbox of mental attention skills that enables us to concentrate on one task while blocking out competing information, and allows us to switch focus between different tasks without becoming confused.
It is the executive system that tells us to go when we see a green light and stop for a red, and it is the same system that tells us to ignore the meaning of the word we read but concentrate on the colour of the letters. The snowflake test prepared my ACC for the second flanker task, just as speaking more than one language seems to train the executive system more generally. A steady stream of studies over the past decade has shown that bilinguals outperform monolinguals in a range of cognitive and social tasks from verbal and nonverbal tests to how well they can read other people.
In fact, says cognitive neuropsychologist Jubin Abutalebi, at the University of San Raffaele in Milan, it is possible to distinguish bilingual people from monolinguals simply by looking at scans of their brains. The ACC is like a cognitive muscle, he adds: the more you use it, the stronger, bigger and more flexible it gets. Bilinguals, it turns out, exercise their executive control all the time because their two languages are constantly competing for attention. Brain-imaging studies show that when a bilingual person is speaking in one language, their ACC is continually suppressing the urge to use words and grammar from their other language.
Not only that, but their mind is always making a judgement about when and how to use the target language. For example, bilinguals rarely get confused between languages, but they may introduce the odd word or sentence of the other language if the person they are talking to also knows it. Speaking a second language can help forestall the symptoms of dementia Credit: Getty Images. A superior ability to concentrate, solve problems and focus, better mental flexibility and multitasking skills are, of course, valuable in everyday life.
But perhaps the most exciting benefit of bilingualism occurs in ageing, when executive function typically declines: bilingualism seems to protect against dementia. Psycholinguist Ellen Bialystok made the surprising discovery at York University in Toronto while she was comparing an ageing population of monolinguals and bilinguals.
It means that as parts of the brain succumb to damage, bilinguals can compensate more because they have extra grey matter and alternative neural pathways. However, it is no good simply to have learned a little French at school. The effect depends on how often you use your bilingual skill. Bilingualism can also offer protection after brain injury. In a recent study of stroke survivors in India, Bak discovered that cognitive recovery was twice as likely for bilinguals as for monolinguals.
Such results suggest bilingualism helps keep us mentally fit.
It may even be an advantage that evolution has positively selected for in our brains — an idea supported by the ease with which we learn new languages and flip between them, and by the pervasiveness of bilingualism throughout world history. Just as we need to do physical exercise to maintain the health of bodies that evolved for a physically active hunter-gatherer lifestyle, perhaps we ought to start doing more cognitive exercises to maintain our mental health, especially if we only speak one language.
In recent years, there has been a backlash against the studies showing benefits from bilingualism. Some researchers tried and failed to replicate some of the results; others questioned the benefits of improved executive function in everyday life.
Inventing A Classroom: Life In A Bilingual, Whole Language Learning Community
Bak wrote a rejoinder to the published criticisms, and says there is now overwhelming evidence from psychological experiments backed by imaging studies that bilingual and monolingual brains function differently. He says the detractors have made errors in their experimental methods. Immersing children in a second language may help benefit their performance in all subjects Credit: Getty Images. His study is not yet complete, but other research has shown that these benefits of learning a language can be achieved quickly. The problem is, they disappear again unless they are used — and I am unlikely to use the made-up snowflake language ever again!
So how can this knowledge be applied in practice? One option is to teach children in different languages. In many parts of the world, this is already being done: many Indian children, for example, will use a different language in school from their mother or village tongue. But in English-speaking nations, it is rare. Nevertheless, there is a growing movement towards so-called immersion schooling, in which children are taught in another language half the time. The state of Utah has been pioneering the idea, with many of its schools now offering immersion in Mandarin Chinese or Spanish.
They are better at concentrating, focusing and have a lot more self-esteem. Anytime you understand another language, you understand your language and culture better. It is economically and socially beneficial. We need to get over our affliction with monolingualism. The immersion approach is being trialled in the UK now, too.
At Bohunt secondary school in Liphook, Hampshire, head teacher Neil Strowger has introduced Chinese-language immersion for a few lessons. Immersing yourself in a new language and culture may open your mind to new ways of thinking Credit: Getty Images. I sit in on an art class with year-olds being taught by two teachers: one speaking English, the other Chinese.
Inventing a Classroom: Life in a Bilingual, Whole Language Learning Community | Semantic Scholar
The children are engaged but quiet, concentrating on the task of learning multiple ideas. When they speak it is often in Chinese — and there is something rather surreal about watching young people in the UK discussing British graffiti artist Banksy in Mandarin.
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What about those of us who have left school? In order to maintain the benefits of bilingualism, you need to use your languages and that can be tricky, especially for older people who may not have many opportunities to practise. Perhaps we need language clubs, where people can meet to speak other languages. Bak has done a small pilot study with elderly people learning Gaelic in Scotland and seen significant benefits after just one week. Now he aims to carry out a much larger trial. It is never too late to learn another tongue, and it can be very rewarding. It takes three years for a baby to learn a language, but just months for an adult.
Being bilingual could keep our minds working longer and better into old age, which could have a massive impact on how we school our children and treat older people. In the meantime, it makes sense to talk, hablar , parler , sprechen , beszel, berbicara in as many languages as you can. However, it is not true that learners can only feel at home and in control if they use their L1; with appropriate techniques and a nurturing atmosphere, even beginners can feel fine in L2 right from day one. Of course, it is important for teachers to feel fine in L2 too, so they need to be helped to break out of the L1 straight-jacket and be given a repertoire of techniques to help them operate effectively in L2 with beginners and all other students.
This is simply not true, but if the teacher believes it or simply doesn't know how to help students feel empowered in L2, then the students will not feel empowered in L2 and will be stuck in L1 maybe even forever. I worked at the Matsuka Phonics English schools in in Japan, where there was an English-only policy inside the classroom. This required all of us teachers, native Japanese-speaking or native English-speaking, to be able to show, draw, or act out as we spoke. We said, "Watch," or "Listen carefully," or "I'll show you," first. Our students developed 'big ears' for English, and big confidence, too.
True, some first year students were confused during the Krashen "silent period. There were three situations when Japanese might be used:. This signaled that students could speak in Japanese usually while preparing skits for the Open Class Day performance. The 'big ears' strategy really paid off in building students' confidence in themselves as English learners. One caveat: Don't switch in mid-stream. If you have been teaching L2 in L1, adopt the English-only policy in new classes. Those who have come to rely on translation can't switch easily.
I'd like to add For example, they may not know how to say "I don't understand the instructions. It has items like:. I explain that every job has special language, and they need to learn the language of their job being a student. After we complete the cloze, we list other useful expressions on the board. I follow up by printing all the expressions onto 5 x 8" cards and distributing them.
Attitudes and Beliefs
At the beginning of each class, I ask the students to take out their cards. Here is the list of phrases on the card:. Note the variety of reasons why students might be unable to answer; now they have the language to articulate what the problem is!!! It's very exciting to see the light go on when students first use these phrases and are able to negotiate their way through the problem.
Also, I insist that the students use correct grammar when asking about spelling and pronunciation. I explain that memorizing yes!!! I also try to head off "I'm agree" and "It's mean In a piece of small-scale research that a colleague at our institution conducted, she found that students in monolingual classes tend to conduct pair or group work in L1 when the task involves problem solving. What happens is that students discuss the solution using L1, Turkish in our case, but the end product, often a written task, is in English.
The same tends to happen in our teacher education sessions when we ask teachers to put their heads together to discuss an issue and come up with a solution. It's natural to use your mother tongue, I guess. Another reason is that all members in a problem solving task have the same role unless the teacher assigns one student to list When we taped beginner level groups to find out what it was in group work that they said in Turkish, we discovered that they were saying these things in L1 and rightfully so because our course books nor we did not teach these and they didn't know them.
I wonder how much of this applies to teachers in other teaching contexts? Teachers who get concerned when the first language is spoken have perhaps not spent time trying to learn a new language with no reference given to their first language. Yes, when the material has been covered thoroughly, then the target language should be practiced.