The advantages of being bilingual

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Is the possibility of communicating with people from other cultural backgrounds the only advantage of speaking foreign languages?

Cognitive psychologists believe the exact opposite. "Knowing two or more languages and using them often appears to have a side-effect in the form of training specific mechanisms of the mind. These mechanisms in turn constitute the basis for numerous everyday activities that are seemingly unrelated to language," explained Zofia Wodniecka, PhD, from the Institute of Psychology, the head of the team investigating the influence of bilingualism on the functioning of the mind.

Flexible mind

Studies conducted in several research centers around the world over the last two decades demonstrate that, statistically, bilingual people focus on performed tasks better than monolinguals, particularly when exposed to stimuli that might be distracting. Bilinguals also display more flexibility in thinking. Flexible thinking (or cognitive flexibility) is a psychological term that refers to the ability to find more solutions to a given problem. Several studies by now have reported greater flexibility of bilinguals compared to monolinguals.

In a classical experiment of this kind, a participant is asked to list as many potential applications as possible of an ordinary object, such as a brick, apart from its obvious, typical uses. The aim is to generate the highest possible number of unconventional ideas, e.g., using the brick as a paperweight, etc. Such studies have frequently (although not always!) shown that bilinguals cope with the task better than monolinguals.

Cognitive flexibility understood in such a way is likely to consist of many elementary processes. The team supervised by Wodniecka has recently managed to "capture" one of them. In an experiment conducted by the group from the Jagiellonian University (in cooperation with researchers from Granada University in Spain), scientists examined the categorization of faces according to different criteria (e.g., faces of older/younger people, female/ male faces). The comparison of the performance of this task by bilinguals (who use both the Hungarian and Polish languages) and monolinguals (in this case, those who speak only Hungarian) revealed an interesting phenomenon: bilingual people were able to get away from the previous way of categorizing and "switch" to a new way in a more efficient (faster and more accurate) way. It is likely that it is such elementary "sub-processes" that build more complex abilities in which the advantage of bilingual people can be observed.

However, not all studies investigating the consequences of bilingualism point unanimously to a similar advantage of bilinguals. There is probably a series of factors that contribute to the optimal conditions fostering the occurrence of such positive effects of bilingualism as described above, although we have not succeeded in identifying them yet. One of our most recent projects, carried out by members of the team supervised by Zofia Wodniecka and Magdalena Senderecka, PhD from the Cognitive Sciences Department at the Jagiellonian University, will attempt to answer this question. It will be conducted by Patrycja Kałamała under the Diamond Grant received for this purpose.

Member of the research group during the EEG test . Photo: B. Zarycki

Without a switch

"The research conducted in several labs in the world, including ours, shows that both the languages known by a person are always active in the mind of a bilingual person, regardless of which of these languages the person is currently using. In the past, the ‘radio switch' metaphor was used to describe the way in which bilinguals use both languages known to them: a bilingual person thinks, for example, in Polish, and then they switch an invisible control lever and start speaking and thinking, for example, in English. Later they switch it back and start speaking and thinking in Polish again. However, numerous studies in the last decade have been conducted with the goal of understanding what is going on in the mind of a bilingual person when he or she is having a conversation, i.e., when they are simultaneously talking and, on the other hand, listening and trying to understand what others are saying. A vast majority of the obtained results indicates that bilinguals have so-called non-selective access to both languages. This means that both known languages are simultaneously active in the mind of a bilingual person, both in the process of understanding and uttering speech," Zofia Wodniecka points out. In highly simplified terms, this could be described as if one language was trying to "shut down" the other. The "fight" lasts only fractions of a second, which is not, however, as short a period of time as it might seem when referring to the speed at which the human mind operates. This "fight" is effortful for the mind although it usually remains unnoticed both for a bilinguals and their interlocutors. The effort, however, can be well captured in laboratory experiments, including those conducted by scientists from Kraków.

Improved control of the mind

It is probably the ability to cope with such simultaneous activation of both languages and the need to constantly monitor the language that has to be used at the given moment which makes bilinguals better at controlling the activities they perform. The goal of one of the projects currently conducted by the team supervised by Zofia Wodniecka (carried out among secondary school students from Kraków who participate in intensive English language classes) is to explore the possibility that it is indeed the language experience that leads to improved control of the mind. "We are recording, among other things, the changes that occur in the mind and brain during intense use of the second language. In order to do so, we use experimental methods, as well as measure electrical activity of the brain, with the use of the Event-related potentials technique. At the moment, the analyses are in progress but we should have some preliminary reports soon," explained Wodniecka.

Another research project carried out in cooperation with scientists from the Warsaw University (in particular Ewa Haman, PhD) and with Marta Białecka-Pikul, PhD from the Jagiellonian University, concerns developmental patterns of Polish bilingual children. The project is a part of a large-scale networking program within the European COST Action IS0804. "The objective that we have set for this project is to establish developmental pathways of Polish immigrant children brought up abroad, primarily in the United Kingdom. Our goal is to develop tools that might be used for the purposes of diagnosing the language development in bilingual children in the future," the scientist from Kraków informs.

Research on bilingualism is quite a new discipline of science. It is being developed mainly in centers characterized by the most vivid awareness of changes taking place in the globalizing world. Thanks to the research conducted by the team led by Zofia Wodniecka, the Jagiellonian University is becoming one of such centers.

Research team: Zofia Wodniecka, PhD – Principal Investigator

Co-Investigators: Jakub Szewczyk, MA; Marcin Bukowski, PhD; Magdalena Senderecka, PhD, Ewa Haman, PhD – from University of Warsaw Graduate students: Joanna Durlik, MA; Justyna Kotowicz, MA; Patrycja Kałamała

Affiliates: Joanna Kołak, MA; Magdalena Król, MA; Karolina Łukasik, MA, Anna Drożdzowicz, MA – University of Oslo, Paweł Mandera, MA – Ghent University

Collaborators: Andrzej Tarłowski, PhD – from University of Finance and Management in Warsaw, Paweł Rutkowski, PhD – from University of Warsaw, Marta Białecka-Pikul, PhD; Darek Asanowicz, PhD – both from the Jagiellonian University; Justina Gilevskaja, MA – University of Cambridge Student volunteers: Klaudia Tondos, Alicja Bochenek, Marta Rodenko