Bilinguals are smarter than you think

Bilinguals are smarter than you think

Abu Dhabi - A first-of-its kind research reveals different parts of the brain are used when switching languages.

By Staff Reporter

Published: Sun 14 Feb 2016, 11:00 PM

Last updated: Mon 15 Feb 2016, 1:33 PM

The UAE is a melting point of cultures with people talking different languages. And it has become imperative to know at least two languages. But what happens in the brain when people switch between languages? Here in the national capital, two researchers at the Neuroscience of Language Lab at New York University Abu Dhabi (NYU Abu Dhabi), are on a mission to figure out this, the first of its kind in cognitive study.They - Esti Blanco-Elorrieta, a PhD candidate in psychology at NYU and her advisor Liina Pylkkänen, Associate Professor of Linguistics and Psychology at NYU - have found that switching languages when speaking, and switching languages when listening, engages different parts of the brain.The duo recently published their findings in The Journal of Neuroscience."It's a big question in the field of language cognition, whether there is something special about language switching and language control that's particular to language, or whether the same brain machinery is applied for both language and non-language switching and control," said Esti Blanco-Elorrieta, the lead author of the study.Blanco-Elorrieta and her advisor, Associate Professor of Linguistics and Psychology at NYU Liina Pylkkänen, developed an experiment to determine to what extent the regions of the brain engaged while switching languages, whether overlapped or distinct.
Advantage bilingual
Knowing two languages - and switching between them - requires a great deal of cognitive control, since a language that is not in use at a particular time needs to be blocked off.
This fact has led some scientists to believe that bilinguals have an advantage over monolinguals because knowing two languages requires more cognitive control than knowing one.
Called the bilingual advantage hypothesis, this idea suggests that bilinguals' brains are in better shape to focus on given tasks and ignore unimportant stimuli.This gives bilinguals an advantage not only in the use of language, but also in any undertaking that requires focus.
However, skeptics of the bilingual advantage hypothesis suggest that benefits would only come to bilinguals if the same control networks were used for both language tasks and non-language tasks.
Cognitive control is a key concept in the field of neuroscience - the idea that humans must be able to focus on certain tasks and block out unnecessary stimuli in order to accomplish a goal. A goal can be anything, from navigating one's way home from work, to ordering a coffee.
Research like this is fundamental in the sense that it helps scientists learn how the brain processes language. But it could have a more practical application. "It could have pedagogical benefits," Blanco-Elorrieta said."If, as it seems, producing and comprehending language switches relies on different brain mechanisms, we should make sure that both production and comprehension are sufficiently trained. When teaching a second language, given that the cognitive control required to successfully deal with two languages, seems to not straightforwardly extend from one type of language use to the other."
She added that Abu Dhabi is a fantastic place to do this kind of research, because there are so many people who speak a variety of languages.
"We are always looking for volunteers," she said.
What helped them to know the intricacies of brain:
>The researchers used magnetoencephalography (MEG)machine at the New York University Abu Dhabi's (NYU Abu Dhabi) Neuroscience of Language Lab tomeasure brain activity.
> The machine allowed the researchers to peer into the subjects' brains, and see what regions were activated at certain times.
> In this experiment, they focused on the period between 300 to 700 milliseconds after the participants were presented with the stimulus.
> This is the time when the participant's brain would be engaged to figure out the appropriate word to respond to the stimulus.
> They found that in both production phases of the experiment, the prefrontal cortex was activated.
> Esti Blanco-Elorrieta, a PhD candidate in psychology at NYU, said that this is in line with previous research that has found the prefrontal cortex to be influential in cognitive control. In the listening task where the subjects were exposed to two different languages, however,they found that the anterior cingulate cortex was engaged.
> These findings show that different parts of the brain are used for switching between languages in speaking and listening - a novel finding because no one has done this kind of comparison before," Blanco-Elorrieta said.

More news from