How Brains Seamlessly Switch Between Languages

Billions of people worldwide speak two or more languages. (Though the estimates vary, many sources assert that more than half of the planet is bilingual or multilingual.) One of the most common experiences for these individuals is a phenomenon that experts call “code switching,” or shifting from one language to another within a single conversation or even a sentence.

This month Sarah Frances Phillips, a linguist and graduate student at New York University, and her adviser Liina Pylkkänen published findings from brain imaging that underscore the ease with which these switches happen and reveal how the neurological patterns that support this behavior are very similar in monolingual people. The new study reveals how code switching—which some multilingual speakers worry is “cheating,” in contrast to sticking to just one language—is normal and natural. Phillips spoke with Mind Matters editor Daisy Yuhas about these findings and why some scientists believe bilingual speakers may have certain cognitive advantages.

Read more: Scientific American

What makes someone bilingual? There’s no easy answer

It’s estimated that half the world’s population is bilingual, and two-thirds of the world’s children grow up in an environment where several languages intersect. But while bilingualism is common, its definitions are varied. They are often based on people’s experiences or feelings about language—what they convey and what they represent.

The question also divides linguists. While some emphasize cultural integration as the most important factor, others say that only an individual with equivalent mastery of both languages can truly be considered bilingual.

In 1930, linguist Leonard Bloomfield defined bilingualism as the complete control of two languages, as if each were a mother tongue. This is an idealized vision of a perfect, balanced bilingualism, assuming equivalent written and oral skills in both languages. According to this definition, a bilingual speaker is the sum of two monolinguals. However, this type of bilingualism is extremely rare, and in reality, bilingual people have varied language profiles. Each is unique in their relationship to language.

Lire cet article en français: À partir de quand devient-on bilingue?

There are other theories of bilingualism. The Canadian linguist William F Mackey defines it as the alternating use of two or more languages, while Swiss scholar François Grosjean argues that people who are bilingual use two or more languages in their everyday activities. Vivian Cook, from the UK, defines a bilingual person as a multi-skilled individual who develops language skills consistent with the context of acquisition and use of the second language. Thus, an individual may be considered bilingual even if he or she has only a partial command of the second language.

Where does that leave us? Today, a working definition of bilingualism would correspond to the regular and alternating use of at least two languages by an individual—a category that applies to several million speakers.

Read more: Phys.org

On Living, and Thinking, in Two Languages at Once

People ask me whether I think in French or in English now that I’ve lived in the US a while. I lie when I answer this. I say it depends on what I’m thinking about—English for work, French for family and curse words. This answer is usually welcomed as logical: a language for the intellect, another for the feelings. Of course. The truth is I have no idea what language I think in, and because I’m a hypochondriac, I worry that this might mean I have a brain tumor. I end up wondering if I ever actually think of anything. In my head, it’s mostly blurry images, or blocks of sense memories colliding with whatever I’m presently seeing. Rarely a fully formed thought—unless I’m actively trying to make sense of something, the way I am doing right now. In conversation, though, some words come to me in English and others in French, and I have to pause for a second to find the correct translation.

I did this the other day, on the phone with my sister. She was having a hard time and needed to vent, and we acknowledged the fact that she was venting, except I’d forgotten the proper French phrase for venting and so I used a literal translation of the English word before the French expression finally found its way back to me. The way you say you’re venting in French is you’re “emptying your bag.” Unpacking. I love both the images. The bag and the vent. They work. I kind of don’t want to choose between them.

My mother and her three brothers, when together, have always spoken a mix of French and Spanish, with an accent that is neither one or the other—because they all, as children, spoke both languages perfectly and with no accent whatsoever, they were able to devise unique intonations for their Franish. Very few things make me more happy than hearing them speak their language. They pick the best version of each word in each language, conjugate old-timey French verbs the Spanish way… after 50-something years of existence, their language is still being invented as they go. It has its own logic that is one of constantly choosing what sounds best, or is the most funny, except it seems entirely effortless. It always flows perfectly. As a child I often wondered what made them decide between French and Spanish for such and such words, and I realize now that it was just another version of the question “What language do you think in?” Now I know they don’t think about it when they elect to say “La copa esta plena” instead of “la coupe est llena,” each one a different combination of French and Spanish. They’re just talking. They’re entertaining each other.

Read more: Literary Hub

Bad language: why being bilingual makes swearing easier

My dad had a liberal philosophy of childrearing, but he would always tell us off for swearing. As a result, I grew up feeling very uncomfortable using swearwords. Or, at least, so I thought – when I first moved to Scotland, I noticed that it was actually very easy to swear in English. Interestingly enough, I also found it easy to talk to my flatmates about topics that felt too intimate to discuss in my native tongue. In a flat of seven girls from all over Europe, we discussed the full magnitude of emotions and topics; the fears of living abroad, falling in and out of love, death, sex – everything. Swearing and talking about these emotions was not easy just because of the inherent rowdiness of the student community, or because we felt liberated being away from home for the first time. The effect I was observing is something that goes deeper and touches a huge amount of people who live in multilingual settings.

Many bilinguals report “feeling less” in their second language; it does not bear the same emotional weight as your native language. Feeling less emotionally connected to your second language might make it easier to use highly emotional vocabulary, which is precisely what I was experiencing with my ease of swearing and talking about sensitive topics in English. The scientific term for this is reduced emotional resonance of language. It is a fairly well-established phenomenon, but many specific questions still remain unanswered. For example, what exactly makes one’s second language less emotional? How does this affect different immigrant communities? My research project aims to address these questions by looking into the reasons and implications of reduced emotional resonance in bilinguals’ second language.

Read more: The Guardian

How bilingualism in movies is changing our cultural perception

More and more, we’re seeing languages besides English prominently featured in blockbuster films. But does bilingualism have a positive impact, or reinforce age-old stereotypes? How does the use of language in movies change the way we think about people?

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that about 20% of the American population speaks a language other than English at home. That’s one in every five people — one in every five characters you see on screen. And yet, for many years, this diversity has not been accurately represented in blockbuster films.

The Goonies has one of the earliest and most memorable bilingual scenes, when Mouth fools Rosalita, the recently hired maid, by purposefully translating English badly to her. While it’s admirable that they chose to make Mouth knowledgeable in Spanish, it’s undeniable that Rosalita was made to look inferior. While being a realistic representation of cultural demographics, the gesture of representation still falls short by affording Rosalita the “ignorant maid” stereotype.

When Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides introduced us to Penelope Cruz’s character, she was the first character to speak Spanish in the franchise, despite the films being set in the Americas. Even so, she was from Spain, and not a native Spanish-speaker from the Caribbean.

Read more: Hypable

How you learned a second language influences the way your brain works

Over the past few years, you might have noticed a surfeit of articles covering current research on bilingualism. Some of them suggest that it sharpens the mind, while others are clearly intended to provoke more doubt than confidence, such as Maria Konnikova’s “Is Bilingualism Really an Advantage?” (2015) in The New Yorker. The pendulum swing of the news cycle reflects a real debate in the cognitive science literature, wherein some groups have observed effects of bilingualism on non-linguistic skills, abilities and function, and others have been unable to replicate these findings.

Despite all the fuss that has been made about the “bilingual advantage,” most researchers have moved on from the simplistic ‘is there an advantage or not’ debate. Rather than asking whether bilingualism per se confers a cognitive advantage, researchers are now taking a more nuanced approach by exploring the various aspects of bilingualism to better understand their individual effects.

To give an idea of the nuances I am talking about, consider this: there is more than one type of bilingualism. A “simultaneous bilingual” learns two languages from birth; an “early sequential bilingual” might speak one language at home but learn to speak the community language at school; and a “late sequential bilingual” might grow up with one language and then move to a country that speaks another. The differences between these three types are not trivial—they often lead to different levels of proficiency and fluency in multiple aspects of language, from pronunciation to reading comprehension.

Read more: Quartz

6 Potential Brain Benefits Of Bilingual Education

Brains, brains, brains. One thing we’ve learned at NPR Ed is that people are fascinated by brain research. And yet it can be hard to point to places where our education system is really making use of the latest neuroscience findings.

But there is one happy nexus where research is meeting practice: Bilingual education. “In the last 20 years or so, there’s been a virtual explosion of research on bilingualism,” says Judith Kroll, a professor at the University of California, Riverside.

Again and again, researchers have found, “bilingualism is an experience that shapes our brain for a lifetime,” in the words of Gigi Luk, an associate professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.

At the same time, one of the hottest trends in public schooling is what’s often called dual-language or two-way immersion programs.

Read more: NPR

Is Perfect Bilingualism Attainable?

Raising children to speak two languages is no easy feat. Parents often find themselves enrolling children in language immersion programs, exposing them to different languages at home, encouraging them watch cartoons in another language, and sometimes even hiring language tutors or nannies to speak to their kids in foreign languages. But does this process need to be so hard? All we want is for our kids to become bilingual.

While many parents might define bilingualism as a person who can speak two languages with native-like fluency, this ‘gold standard’ is often unreasonable and unattainable. Bilingualism exists on a continuum, where a speaker has varying levels of linguistic proficiency in a first language and a second language. The following article seeks to uncover a nuanced understanding of what it means to be bilingual, in hopes of breaking down the seemingly daunting task of raising bilingual children.

Read more: The Huffington Post

Language Experts Encourage Universities To Make Students Bilingual To Combat Dementia

Professor Antonella Sorace, founder of the Bilingualism Matters Centre at Edinburgh University, said there was now good evidence to show that bilingualism could protect the brain in later life.
Studies have shown that certain types of dementia appear up to five years later for people who speak a second language compared with monolinguists.

It is thought bilingual people have a cognitive reserve that delays the onset.

Prof Sorace said she’d like children to learn languages from age five until they finish university.
“Languages should be a requirement for any kind of degree,” she told the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Washington.

Read more: Student Times

How to make Australia more bilingual

Bilingualism has been associated with a range of benefits for young learners, from higher test scores to more creative thought processes and greater mental flexibility. Being bilingual has even been claimed to mitigate the impacts of socioeconomic status on students. However, the numbers of students undertaking language study in Australia is low, so is learning an additional language just too much hard work?

Australia is a linguistically diverse nation, with more than 250 languages spoken in Australian homes. However, many students are opting out of elective language study. In NSW, as of 2013, less than 10% of HSC students undertook a second language.

Read more: The Conversation

Do Bilinguals Have Superior Cognitive Control?

The frequent switching between languages in bilinguals’ brains has led many to ask whether this lifelong exercise also makes bilinguals better at controlling other mental processes, giving them a cognitive edge. That remains to be determined. But in a new study, researchers took a more nuanced look at cognition in bilinguals, and rather than focusing on the question of the so-called bilingual advantage, examined how bilinguals used their brains while performing a simple cognitive task. And, as it turns out, they used them differently than monolinguals.

Read more: Braindecoder