The Singapore education system’s Bilingualism policy was implemented in 1966, and is still in effect today. Several ministers, on numerous occasions; have stated that it is important for us to remain bilingual as it keeps us globally relevant and competitive while keeping our cultural identity in tact. This sensible idea is what we have been commonly exposed to all these years.
What is Bilingualism?
Ever since research on bilingualism began in the early 1920s, there have been several technical labels used to categorise bilinguals. However, a layman's explanation would be having the ability to communicate effectively using both languages.This means to say that one cannot be considered an accomplished bilingual if one has better knowledge of one language, while hardly using other to communicate.
Cognitive benefits of being bilingual
1. Better executive brain functions
Several studies have found that bilinguals perform better in tasks that involve executive brain functions, such as planning, problem solving, information retention and concentration. For instance, in a study published in the Journal of Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, Viorica Marian, a linguistic psychologist and her colleagues at Northwestern University found that bilingual children were better able to ignore classroom noise compared to their monolingual counterparts.
2. Greater Mental flexibility
Other studies have found that as bilinguals are more accustomed to switching from using one language to another, they are more mentally flexible while performing cognitive tasks. Judith Kroll, a Professor of Psychology from Pennylvania State University, stated that bilinguals are better able to edit irrelevant information and prioritise tasks, making them better multitaskers. Researchers believe that this is most likely due to bilinguals’ habit of mentally negotiating between the two languages during communication; sometimes referred to as mental juggling by Professor Kroll. For example, an article from The Telgraph mentions a study that involved participants being told to carry out separate, distracting tasks whilst handling a driving simulator. The study found that those who spoke two or more languages made fewer mistakes on the simulator.
3. Better metalinguistic awareness.
Metalinguistic awareness is the ability to go beyond the meaning of oral and written language, to pay attention to the form of the language instead. For example, it was found as early as 1977 that bilingual kids scored higher than monolingual kids in tasks that involved symbol substitution. Kids were instructed to substitute the word ‘I’ with the word ‘Spaghetti’ and were awarded a point when they were able to say, “Spaghetti am cold” instead of “Spaghetti is cold”. This activity required the children to pay attention to the structure of the supposed sentence, retain it, then substitute the appropriate word. Hence, it is believed that bilinguals tend to pay more attention to the structure and details of a language. Better metalinguistic awareness is key to learning a language and this is perhaps why being bilingual can also help improve your mastery of both languages.
4. Better mental health
It has also recently been discovered that bilingualism may help keep diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s at bay. It seems that bilingualism contributes to the cognitive reserve and increases the amount of gray matter in the brain, delaying the onset of these diseases. Although further research is required on this finding, it still seems to be a promising discovery!
Bhattacharjee, Y. (2012, March 17). Why Bilinguals are Smarter. The New York Times Sunday Review. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/18/opinion/sunday/the-benefits-of-bilingualism.html?_r=1&
Diaz, R.M. (1985). The Intellectual Power of Billingualism. Retrieved from http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED283368.pdf
Grosjean, F. (2014, September 18). Understanding the Bilingual Brain: The neural bases of bilingualism. [Life as a Bilingual web blog] Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/life-bilingual/201409/understanding-the-bilingual-brain
Kovacs, A.M. & Mehler, J. (2009). Cognitive gains in 7-month-old bilingual infants. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 106, 6556-6560. Retrieved from http://www.pnas.org/content/106/16/6556
Lewis,T (2014, November 12). Bilingual People Are Like Brain ‘Bodybuilders’. Livescience. Retrieved from http://www.livescience.com/48721-bilingual-brain-bodybuilders.html
Merritt, A. (2013, June 19). Why learn a foreign language? Benefits of bilingualism. The Telegraph. Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationopinion/10126883/Why-learn-a-foreign-language-Benefits-of-bilingualism.html
Pavlenko,A. (2014, November 12). Bilingual Cognitive Advantage: Where do we Stand? [Guest post in Life as a Bilingual] Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/life-bilingual/201411/bilingual-cognitive-advantage-where-do-we-stand
Schweizer,T.A., Ware, J., Fischer C.E., Craik F.I.M & Bialystok, E. (2012). Bilingualism as a contributor to cognitive reserve: Evidence from brain atrophy in Alzheimer’s disease. CORTEX, 48, 991-996. Retrieved from http://cog.lab.yorku.ca/files/2007/11/Schweizer.pdf
(2011, February 18). Juggling languages can build better brains. Penn State News. Retrieved from http://news.psu.edu/story/160653/2011/02/18/juggling-languages-can-build-better-brain
So, are you convinced that being bilingual has many perks?
If so, the next time you need to conduct Mother Tongue activities, contact Brainworks Education- an enrichment company that has been working with many schools in Singapore to promote bilingualism.