Bilingualism gives clear neural advantages

A model, sculptured head, white with black markings, words including "language", and "individuality"

writer icon Emma Egelund     ISB   |   Culture     🕐 08. Feb. 2019

Sweden, Norway, and Denmark consistently top the league tables when it comes to English Language proficiency. Education First has published its annual English Proficiency Index (EPI), and time all three Scandinavian Countries are ranked among the top 5. 

Part of the reason for the high scoring Scandinavians is the inclusion of English as a core subject in school. Starting in their primary years, school children in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden are taught the English language, with an expectation of near fluency by the time they graduate.

English is everywhere
In Sweden, English is considered just as important as Mathematics and Swedish. This most likely plays a key part in Sweden’s high ranking EPI score over the years. 

An additional factor promoting English in Scandinavia is the high amount of spoken English heard on television, as well as the high occurrence of English language songs played on the radio. English television in Scandinavia is very rarely dubbed, with an exception being children’s shows.

Further advantages
There are other benefits to knowing more than one language than being able to enjoy a wider range of television shows. Bilingualism can increase one’s brain health, by engaging and activating different parts of the brain that might otherwise be neglected.

A TED-ed talk by Mia Nacamulli pointed out how knowing two or more languages means that a person’s brain may actually function differently when compared with the brain of a monolingual person.

The elements of bilingualism
There are different types of bilingualism, just as there are different aspects of language. Reading and listening are categorised as passive aspects, while speaking and writing are active.

Most people who are proficient in more than one language feel that they have strengths in some areas and weaknesses in others, as opposed to being proficient across the board.

The different types of bi- or multilingualism depend on how a person first comes across the additional language. A young child with two parents who speak different native languages is most likely developing both languages alongside one another equally. This is sometimes called “compound bilingualism”.

An older child, who moves to a new country and learns the language while living there, already has a concept of their own language. They learn the new language alongside their existing one and build a new concept for the new language. This is generally labelled as “coordinate bilingualism”.

Times have changed
Regardless of when one learns a second language, most people are agreed that knowing multiple languages gives individuals a clear advantage today. However, this was not always the case.

Early research, from before the 1960s, presented a relationship between bilingualism and lower IQ scores. As a result of these studies, the general public’s perception of bilingualism was that it lead to language difficulty, and it was seen as a handicap. 

Since then, the studies have been discredited. Today, researchers are agreed that bilingualism has a positive effect overall. 

Professor Yang Hwajin, a cognitive and developmental psychologist from the Singapore Management University (SMU) told Science Daily, "What we have found in the last three decades is that bilingualism has substantial impact on cognitive function - the way that we think, make decisions, perceive things, solve decisions”.

Visible changes
The brain can even appear physically different if it belongs to a bilingual, or multilingual, person. Mia Nacamulli highlighted the higher density of the grey matter that contains most of the brain’s neurons and synapses.

The brain also experiences high levels of activity in certain regions when a second language is engaged. “The heightened workout a bilingual brain receives throughout its life can also help delay the onset of diseases, like Alzheimer’s and dementia by as much as five years”, Nacamulli explained.

Not automatically cleverer
Bilingualism across the Scandinavian countries does not necessarily make the Swedes, Danes, or Norwegians smarter than any other country’s natives.

The latest results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) show that Scandinavian students on the whole currently fall behind Canada, Switzerland, Japan, and China. Denmark ranks highest of the three Scandinavian countries, coming in at 12th place. 

Nevertheless, learning a second language can help make a person’s brain more healthy, and the positive results are felt regardless of when one begins to learn it.

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