The respected science weekly New Scientist (number 2863, May 5th, 2012) reports on research suggesting that speaking a second language has cognitive benefits. Command of a second language improves planning and working memory, concentration, multitasking and, most significantly, can sharpen the ageing mind and delay the onset of dementia. Command of a second language is one of the most effective forms of “brain training”. Read New Scientist’s editorial on this finding below.
Oh, to be bilingual in the Anglosphere
New Scientist 2863, 08 May 2012
The dominance of English as the global language is a mixed blessing, as native speakers often lose the brain benefits of a second language
THERE are many reasons to be grateful for being part of the “Anglosphere”. English is the world’s lingua franca, the language of science, technology, business, diplomacy and popular culture. That probably explains why it is the world’s most widely spoken language.
It probably also explains why native English speakers are so reluctant to learn a second language. It’s not worth the effort.
In 2005, the European Commission carried out a survey of the European Union’s 25 member states. The two with the lowest rates of bilingualism – defined as being able to hold a conversation in more than one language – were the UK and Ireland. About two-thirds of people in these countries speak only English.
It’s a similar story wherever English is spoken as the mother tongue. Only about 25 per cent of US citizens can converse in another language. In Australia the rates are even lower.
Compare that with continental Europe, where multilingualism is the rule rather than the exception. More than half of EU citizens are bilingual, and not just because they live in countries like Luxembourg with multiple official languages. Even in France, which has only one official language and is immensely proud of its linguistic heritage, most people speak a second language.
Again, that is largely down to the dominance of English. Across Europe, English is by far the most commonly learned language. High levels of bilingualism are not driven by a general desire to learn languages but a specific need to learn English.
People born in countries where English is not the mother tongue have their own reasons to be thankful: being bilingual is good for your brain (see “Bilingual brain boost: Two tongues, two minds“). It doesn’t matter whether you are brought up in a bilingual household or learn a second language later in life, speaking more than one language improves cognitive function across the board, from planning and working memory to concentration and multitasking.
Most significantly, being bilingual can sharpen the ageing mind, delaying the onset of dementia in those vulnerable to it by as much as half a decade. It is one of the most effective forms of “brain training” available.
Yet at the same time that the benefits of bilingualism have been discovered, education systems in English-speaking countries have continued to be relatively neglectful of foreign languages. In the UK, the number of schoolchildren choosing to study a second language to A-level standard (from age 16) has halved since the early 1990s. The US has seen a small rise in the number of children taking high-school language courses but the proportion still remains even lower than in the UK.
The neglect of language teaching has been bemoaned as dumbing down. That isn’t so; native English speakers simply lack incentives to learn another language. But it should be bemoaned for a different reason. Given the general cognitive benefits of speaking a second language, a decline in language teaching will likely mean a decline in education attainment across the board.
In a fiercely competitive world, being born into an anglophone culture is not quite the blessing it may first appear.
For the full cover story go to the current issue (2863) of New Scientist, or visit: http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21428631.800-bilingual-brain-boost-two-tongues-two-minds.html .