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The Cognitive Advantages of Bilingualism

In the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein wrote, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”

This is one of the few things he wrote that I can understand, but starting with a quote from Wittgenstein is impressive, no?

Language teachers, I suppose, would agree with this premise. If our worlds are limited by our language, speaking two languages would naturally expand our world. And, not only does speaking multiple languages help us to communicate, but bilingualism may actually confer specific cognitive advantages – especially to developing brains. A bilingual person, research shows, is better able to inhibit some responses, promote others, and has a more “flexible” mind, whatever that is. It’s a phenomenon that has been called the “bilingual advantage.”

Some have taken this to mean bilinguals are more intelligent. That is not the case. Bilingualism cannot make you more intelligent than nature allows. We all have natural gifts and limits. We have genetic restraints on our height, for example. If we eat right and get exercise, we will be as tall as we can be. If we don’t, we may be shorter than what our natural endowment would otherwise allow. So it is with the so-called bilingual advantage. It does not make all bilinguals smarter than monolinguals, but it helps us reach our full potential.

What the research does show is that bilinguals have better control of what is called “executive functions.” These are the mechanisms involved in conflict monitoring, planning, attentional control, and the inhibition of habitual responses. It has been suggested that this is because bilinguals are continually using this function to manage their two languages. Through practice those connections in the brain are strengthened.

It is important that people are starting to understand this. For most the of the twentieth century, researchers actually thought that bilingualism put a child at a disadvantage, that it hurt her I.Q. and verbal development. Thankfully, that misunderstanding is being cleared up.

Interestingly, a study has shown that the advantages a bilingual enjoys “originate in the abilities to separate languages.” I will have more to say about this in my next post, because as you may know:

That is what b4 and Aka-Kara English do.

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