Parlez Vous Francais? It Might Boost Brain Power

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Ever wish you had studied a little harder in your high school French or Spanish class? According to a recent New York Times article, being bilingual has benefits that extend well beyond language skills. Guest host Jacki Lyden explores this issue with Ellen Bialystock, professor of psychology at York University.

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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

I'm Jacki Lyden and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away this week. Coming up, springtime in Washington means warm weather, the beginning of a tourist boom and, of course, the blooming of the fabled cherry blossoms.

The trees came as a gift from Japan 100 years ago. What you may not know is that Japanese horticulture has had a strong impact on American gardens, and we'll talk about that in a minute.

First though, language has been a controversial subject for some time. There have been many pushes for English-only education and new stories about students getting in trouble for speaking a second language in school. And then there are parents who specifically seek out a school because they encourage fluency in multiple languages at very young ages.

So a recent New York Times article called "Why Bilinguals Are Smarter" caught our attention. It cited a number of studies that indicate that bilingualism can affect a person in many different ways. Joining us to talk about this is one of the researchers who's referenced in the article, Ellen Bialystok. She's a distinguished research professor in the department of psychology at York University in Toronto and she's done extensive research on the effects of bilingualism.

Thanks for being with us.

ELLEN BIALYSTOK: Thank you for having me.

LYDEN: Professor, can you explain the way that bilingualism affects the brain in anyone?

BIALYSTOK: The way bilingualism works comes down to the idea that if you know two languages, every time you try to use one of them for speaking, for understanding, for reading - it doesn't matter - the other language is also active in your mind and brain. So that creates a problem because how can you keep your attention focused on the language you need and only speak - say English - when everything you know about Spanish is also alive in your brain?

The way we do that is by using this cognitive system called the executive control system to focus attention on the language we need and avoid interference from the other language that's also active. This executive control system turns out to be the most important cognitive system we have. Children develop it rather late. It continues to develop right into adolescence and, by around 30 or so years old, it starts to slow down a bit. So it's a very - if you will - expensive system. It takes a lot of brain resources. But using it to manage two languages gives it this boost and that fortifies it for other purposes.

LYDEN: So what sort of skills does being bilingual help you develop and maintain?

BIALYSTOK: Things like multitasking. Riding down the highway and paying attention to the exit sign you need and still monitoring the traffic all around you. Attending to what's cooking on the stove, what's in the oven and setting the table, switching between all of those different activities. Anything that requires very intense focus attention. That's all done by the executive control system.

LYDEN: So is it accurate to say that people who are bilingual are smarter or will be more successful?

BIALYSTOK: I don't like to say that because smart is kind of a popular word that doesn't have a technical definition. You can be smart in many different ways. But it's certainly the case that people who are bilingual have the basis for higher performance in certain cognitive tasks because it's been built up.

Bilingualism isn't the only way to improve your executive control system, but it's a very good one because it comes rather easily just from being able to speak two languages. So smarter implies knows more, can solve problems better and there's really no evidence for that.

LYDEN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the benefits of bilingualism with Professor Ellen Bialystok.

Let me ask you this. Many kids who are bilingual tend to come from areas of poverty. Has there been any effort to study how bilingualism could be turned to their advantage?

BIALYSTOK: There's a recent study that we just completed. The first thing we wanted to find out was whether the advantages in this executive control system that we found for children in ordinary middle-class environments also could be found in children who were more at risk, at risk from poverty or in a home environment that wasn't very enriching.

So we've just completed a study where we compared Portuguese immigrant children in Luxembourg who were quite poor - but bilingual, to Portuguese monolingual children in the same region in Portugal that they had come from on a number of tasks. And all children were matched on everything, but on executive control tasks, the bilingual children were significantly better. So that's one kind of evidence that, even in a context of risk where these developments are slower and more effortful, we find this bilingual advantage.

We're currently extending this research to a group in the United States, in California, where we're going to try to examine Spanish-English bilingual children in California schools and see if we can find some advantage that can be exploited to help these children produce better academic outcomes.

LYDEN: Well, thank you so very much, Professor Ellen Bialystok. She's a distinguished research professor in the department of psychology at York University and she joined us from the CBC studios in Toronto. Thank you.

BIALYSTOK: Thank you very much.

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