Does speaking a second language make you more intelligent?

March 26, 2013 at 4:16 pm

Photo: Hey Paul Studios

Once upon a time, not too long ago, bilingualism was considered “bad” for your brain. In the USA, at least, the accepted knowledge was that people exposed to two languages became confused with two different sets of words and grammars bashing together between their ears.

This opinion was largely drawn from standardized intelligence tests administered to immigrants arriving in the 1930s. Many new arrivals struggled with the tests. Years later, it was pointed out that the immigrants were at a big disadvantage as the tests were conducted in English, which was not their first language.

“Bilingualism = bad” was relatively unchallenged in American academia until the 1960s, when linguists started to look into the cognitive abilities of bilingual children and came to largely positive, if sometimes speculative, conclusions. Nowadays it is widely accepted that bilingualism and multilingualism are good for the brain, and new studies are finding more evidence for this argument.

Recently published research has even argued that babies exposed to two different languages while in the womb could tell them apart after birth, suggesting that bilingualism doesn’t confuse children, as was traditionally assumed. But some parents who have raised children in a bilingual environment disagree with this, saying that young children don’t like hearing their mothers speak in a different language.

One certainty is that bilingual brains work differently to monolingual ones.

Cognitive benefits

Diaz and Klingler (1991) list various cognitive benefits of multilingualism:

  • Bilingual children show consistent advantages in tasks of both verbal and nonverbal activities.
  • Bilingual children show advanced metalinguistic abilities (the ability to recognise language as a process as well as a “thing”), especially in their control of language processing.
  • Cognitive and metalinguistic advantages appear in bilingual situations that involve systematic uses of the two languages, such as simultaneous acquisition settings or bilingual education.
  • The cognitive benefits of bilingualism appear relatively early in the process of becoming bilingual and do not require high levels of bilingual proficiency nor the achievement of balanced bilingualism (when the speaker can speak both languages to the same standard).
  • Bilingual children have advantages in the use of language for verbal mediation (problem solving assisted by language) as shown by their higher frequency of private-speech utterances (things they say to themselves) and their larger number of private-speech functions.

(Adapted from Introducing Second Language Acquisition, by Muriel Saville-Troike)

Children’s “private speech” offers an interesting insight into the effects of bilingualism. By the time we reach adulthood, we learn not to talk out loud to ourselves and certainly not in public. Children, on the other hand, happily talk out loud to themselves.

Innovative Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky (pictured) is credited with first recognising the importance of private speech in the 1930s, although his work was almost impossible to find outside of the Soviet Union until long after his death.

By monitoring the private speech of monolingual and bilingual children, researchers have shown that being exposed to more languages as a child encourages positive changes in how you process languages and solve certain problems. Although these findings cannot be directly applied to adults, it would seem that multilingual brains are in some ways more active.

Being bilingual keeps the brain working longer

A 2010 study by Fergus et al found that lifelong bilingualism can help delay the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease by four years or more. The study looked at 211 patients who had been diagnosed with probable Alzheimer’s and found that, with other potential influencing factors excluded, the bilingual patients had been diagnosed 4.3 years later and had reported the onset of symptoms 5.1 years later than the monolingual patients.

The paper also suggests that you don’t need to speak a language from childhood to reap the rewards; the important thing is that you use more than one language regularly.

One conclusion is that “bilingualism… appears to contribute to cognitive reserve,” which one of the researchers describes as “rather like a reserve tank in a car… when you run out of fuel, you can keep going for longer because there is a bit more in the safety tank.”

Are smarter people better at learning languages?

In normal circumstances, everyone learns at least one language to fluency. This leads to some debate as to whether more intelligent people are naturally “better with languages”. Some people who would generally be considered intelligent may find language learning difficult, while others who do less well on standardised IQ tests can easily converse in a new language.

Why is this? There are certainly some aspects of intelligence that help with language learning, but other personality traits may be important too.

For example, a strong memory is a key element of both intelligence (by almost all definitions) and the ability to learn a new language. But communicating in a new language requires more than just perfect recall of grammar tables. A study by Genesee (2006), suggested that, while language learners who do well on traditional IQ tests also tend to do better with foreign language reading and writing tests, their intelligence was no advantage on oral comprehension and speaking exams.

Photo: Renato Ganoza

This leads to the question of whether certain personality types are better suited to languages. For example, It is sometimes claimed that having an extroverted nature can help with learning a language as extroverts are more willing to make mistakes. Other papers argues against that, suggesting that, although introverts and extroverts have different learning styles, there is only a low statistical relationship between an extroverted nature and successful language learning.

The truth is that there are many different ways to learn a language, and different methodologies suit different people. For example, language learners who have been through an education system that places emphasis on rote learning may well find it easier to memorise grammar tables and vocabulary. Studies have shown that language learners who were educated in Asia, where rote learning is more common, made large gains through learning a language in this way. The children of Asian immigrants in the USA, however, did not excel at learning through memorising.

So, while having a high IQ may help you to learn a language, it is no guarantee of success. Similarly, if you struggled at school, that doesn’t mean you will struggle with languages. Find the learning style that works for you and you can succeed.

So, does speaking a foreign language make you more intelligent?

It’s hard to say whether speaking a second language makes you “more intelligent” because it is notoriously hard to measure intelligence in any meaningful way. But multilingualism almost certainly changes the way that the brain processes language and research shows that multilingual brains keep functioning longer than monolingual ones.

And anyway, if speaking another language doesn’t make you more intelligent, it certainly makes you sexier.

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