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  • Size matters: Bilinguals have bigger brains

    Dartmouth College neuroscientists have detected more activity in the brains of people who switch between two languages than in those who speak only one.  Using new imaging technology, the researchers found that monolinguals use only the speech areas of their left brains, while bilinguals exercise speech areas in both their left and right hemispheres and show increased left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex activity as well.

    Put more simply, the bilingual test subjects used more brain when speaking than their English-only peers did.  Announcing their findings in Atlanta at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, Dartmouth scientists proclaimed this increased use of the “neural landscape . . . a very good thing.” 

    But it wasn’t ever thus.  Early in the 20th century, some psychologists supported the American determination to speak only English with claims that bilingualism took up too much brain space.  At a time when Americans viewed the large numbers of non-English-speaking newcomers as a problem, speaking two languages was thought to damage sensitive neural tissue, causing mental retardation in children. 

    But times change, and now, filling up your brain with words, especially words in two languages, turns out to be good for you, like red wine and caffeine.  In the global 21st century, while some Americans see immigration as a problem once again, speaking only English – which most Americans persist in regarding as a right guaranteed by the Constitution, if not the Bible – is economic suicide.  Our stubborn monolingualism has also become a major security risk, since no matter how sophisticated our spying on enemies both foreign and domestic, terrorists and saboteurs don’t always speak English while hatching their plots.

    Although supporters of official English belittled the news from the Dartmouth campus, once the darling of the neocon intelligentsia, as one more conspiracy from the liberal professoriate, and they called for an immediate investigation to see whether the ten Spanish-English bilinguals in the study were in fact illegal aliens, parents quickly began downloading podcasts of French, Latin, and Chinese, hoping to double their infants’ brain capacity and give them the competitive edge they didn’t get from listening to Mozart. 

    But as it is with all the schemes to make you smarter and healthier while losing weight without exercise, this scientific breakthrough comes with a catch: bilingualism pumps up the brain not when you use your first language or your second, but only while you’re actively switching between the two.  

    Bilinguals exercising one of their languages at a time apparently process their words the same way monolinguals do.  Two languages only build bigger brains if you pepper each of your sentences with words from both.  But if you cycle from language to language long enough and fast enough, you’ll wind up speaking a third, fusion language and having become monolingual once again, your bigger, better bilingual brain will begin to atrophy, reverting to its puny, shriveled state.  Once again bullies will kick sand in your face at the beach.  Once again the lights on the imaging machine will dim.  And once again, America’s manifest destiny as the home of freedom of speech, so long as that speech is English, will be confirmed.

jtolliver@gmail.com Nov 7, 2006 9:05 pm
Fascinating article and analysis.  My question is: if I am working out cerebrally more when in so-called "bilingual mode," why is it easier for me to switch between languages when I'm really tired or have a migraine, rather than finding the word in one language or another?
In any case,I rather like the vision of the fittest surviving by speaking a new blanguage.

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