Is language competency directly correlated to intelligence? More specifically, does knowing two or more languages have a positive impact on “being smarter”?
When we first hear the word bilingualism, different questions immediately come to mind, such as, “What language level should we have to be considered bilingual?”, “Do we need to speak at the same level as native speakers?”. It is not surprising that there are different theories being derived from such questions which contrast traditional and contemporary views on bilingualism. However, in the 21st century, the concept of bilingualism has become much more practice-oriented, where it is argued that all languages have the potential to be activated. Studies conducted at the University of Griffith have shown that one does not need to speak both languages with equal proficiency and fluency to be considered bilingual and that it is, in fact, common to have a so-called dominant language. Several findings demonstrate that there are varying degrees of bilingualism: passive bilingualism, which refers to the ability to understand a second language but there is no ability to reply in that language; basic bilingualism, having speaking ability with family members and other adults and; native-like, which equates to native language competency.
Now, considering these definitions of bilingualism, how do we address the claims that our language skills are cognitively beneficial, in other words, “Is it true that bilingualism makes us smarter”?” and “To what extent does bilingualism affect our ‘smartness’?”
Bilingualism influences our cognitive skills in the manner in which the executive function is used – a system which helps the brain access particular regions or memories when prompted – as explained by Bialystok. The executive function is needed to switch between tasks quickly or for example, to look for someone in a crowded place. These abilities are linked to the way we absorb and structure information, which are defining features related to intelligence. Bialystok found that a bilingual brain has more activity in both hemispheres of the pre-frontal cortex in which both languages are active, and this regulates executive function. Therefore, this increased activity in the brain results in more successful actions such as multitasking, better focus, remembering number sequences and retaining information. In addition, it also suggests that people with multiple linguistic skills are able to filter relevant information more easily and tend to make more rational decisions. Furthermore, the cognitive function plays a role in that being bilingual makes us more likely to acquire other languages with ease.
Hence, bilingualism improves brain´s executive function which in turn strengthens the mind, enhances intelligence and in the future, may help to avoid dementia. After all of these benefits, do you still have an excuse not to learn a new language?
University of Griffith
Written by Antoneta Cristea
Communication Trainee at TermCoord
Student at University of Luxembourg