Being bilingual alters the brain's architecture, making the executive functions more efficient
LANGUAGE HAS always been a handmaiden of politics, especially in the colonial world, even more so after it. Lord Macaulay, for instance, deployed English as a medium of instruction in higher education in order to colonise the Indian mind. Postpartition, as part of the nation-building project, both India and Pakistan tried to impose Hindi and Urdu respectively on those unfamiliar with these languages, thereby sparking off riots in Sindh, erstwhile East Pakistan and Tamil Nadu. Of late, the bjp-rss ruling nexus has once again roused old passions of the tongue by trying to foist Hindi on non-Hindi speakers.
Apart from the troubling acknowledgement that the past often fails to enlighten the present, one of the enduring legacies of using language as a tool of statecraft is that most Indians are now at least bilinguals, using both English (or Hindi) and their respective mother tongues. The social benefits of being able to speak two or more tongues are obvious—you get to know other cultures and thereby expand your social base. But does it also somehow make the mind more nimble, if not more intelligent?
For the better part of the last century, most scientists believed that while it was an advantage for a child to speak two languages, it came at a heavy price. To quote one Danish linguist from that period, “First of all the child hardly learns either of the two languages as perfectly as he would have done had he limited himself to one… Secondly, the brain effort required to master the two languages instead of one certainly diminishes the child’s power of learning other things.”
Since the 1960s, this view has been gradually eclipsed as many studies found that kids speaking more than one language enjoy what researchers call the bilingual advantage. Apparently it boosts the brain’s executive function—an omnibus word used to describe a medley of mental faculties such as problem-solving ability, memory, communication, sustained focus, and multi-tasking. Significantly, studies also show that the bilingual brain is more resilient to dementia and Alzheimer’s.
In a much-touted 2004 study, Canadian psychologist Ellen Bialystok put two sets of people—TamilEnglish bilinguals from India and English monolinguals from Canada—through a test called the Simon task. The idea was to press a key (say right key for red and left for green) as the colour objects flash on a screen. Expectedly, the reaction time is faster if the position of the keys and objects match (red object on right half of the screen) than if they don’t (red object on left).
But to her surprise Bialystok found the bilingual Indians were quicker and more accurate than the monolingual Canadians when the keys and colours were mismatched. Bialystok believes that the constant switching between two languages alters the brain’s architecture in ways that somehow make the executive function more efficient.
Of late, however, some psychologists have challenged the bilingual advantage thesis. A 2015 review of the studies on the subject found that while some studies do show the effect, it is much less universal or common as often claimed.
Ironically, Indian researchers have paid very little attention to this phenomenon even though India with its over 400 distinct languages is home to the largest number of multilinguals in the world. We don’t know, for instance, if speaking three languages, as many Indians do, or the class prejudice against speaking English poorly takes away from the bilingual advantage.
Even as scientists debate the validity and unversality of bilingual advantage, the world is well on its way to becoming bilingual, thanks mainly to the globalisation of English, albeit sadly, at the expense of many vulnerable languages. At any rate, what survives and what doesn’t in what mix will eventually be determined by the complex and ceaseless interplay between the politics of language and the language of politics.
SORIT / CSE