Sam Wang: If children are exposed to two languages before their first birthday, this has unanticipated benefits. You can measure them in the laboratories when you bring these babies in. They are better able to, for instance, resolve conflict cues. They are better able to unlearn a rule that they learned. So for instance, if they learn that pulling on a string leads to a mobile moving or something else that they like, if the rule suddenly changes, they’re more rapidly able to resolve that conflict and learn the new rule.
And so one thing that’s interesting is that there seem to be ancillary benefits that come from learning a second language that don’t seem to have anything to do with the learning of the language itself. A relatively advanced version of this is something that psychologists call “The Stroop Task.” If I show you the letter… the word “red,” except it’s written in green ink, and you have to say, “Well, what color is that in? and it says “red” and you have to resist the impulse to say “red,” and you say, “It’s in green ink.” Children who are bilingual are better at this Stroop Task. They’re better at resolving those kinds of cues.
There are other benefits that come from learning a second language as well. One benefit that comes out of it that you might not expect is that children who know two languages are better at what’s called “Theory of Mind.” And “Theory of Mind” is a phrase that refers to being able to understand what is on another person’s mind. So let’s say if I can see that you are looking at the door and you’re thinking about who’s behind the door or you’re thinking about lunch or whatever it might be. . . . If I have a good model of what you’re thinking about, that’s the general capacity called “Theory of Mind.” And bilingual children have been demonstrated to have a little bit better Theory of Mind. And that’s interesting because Theory of Mind has, itself, many ancillary benefits like having empathy for other people.
It’s even been demonstrated that dementia, the loss of cognitive function as we get older, is delayed in people who are bilingual compared with people who do not speak a second language. So the onset of dementia is delayed by an average of about four years in people who are bilingual compared with people who do not speak a second language.
So you get lots and lots of benefits from being bilingual, and this persists throughout life. It’s even been demonstrated that whatever demands that bilingual makes on our brains continue all the way through life.
Directed / Produced by
Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd