Thursday, October 20, 2011

It’s official: Learning languages makes you smarter

Academics from Newcastle and York universities say that Education Secretary Michael Gove’s statement that learning languages makes people smarter has a sound scientific basis.

The language we speak represents the world in a certain way. For instance, the English language teaches us that pink is not the same colour as red, and grey is not the same as black, whereas blue is just one colour, regardless of its lightness.

But different languages represent the world differently. For instance, in Italian there are two colours corresponding to the English blue: celeste is light (literally: sky-coloured) blue, and blu is dark blue, similar to the distinction between pink and red. So when an English speaker learns Italian he must learn to think about colours differently in order to use the correct word.

Professor Vivian Cook, Newcastle University (pictured), and Dr Benedetta Bassetti, University of York, are editors of Language and Bilingual Cognition (Psychology Press, 2011) and have spent several years investigating the benefits of knowing two languages.

“We already knew that learning another language improves our knowledge of our mother tongue, and thanks to the work of Professor Ellen Bialystok and others, we also knew that bilingualism has positive effects on the brain at both ends of life,” said Professor Cook.

“Young children develop theory of mind earlier if they know two languages, and in older people, bilingualism can postpone the onset of dementia.”
However, the researchers wanted to take this a step further to see if knowing two specific languages could actually be a form of ‘mind-training’, and discovered that much research shows that being bilingual did literally change the way people see the world.

Early last century linguist Benjamin Whorf was the first to say that western languages make us see reality in a set way, and therefore learning other languages could be beneficial because it would free our minds from such linguistic constraints.

The positive effects of bilingualism are largely due to the fact that learning a new language involves embracing new concepts that are not represented in our own mother tongue, or are different in the two languages. “If I ask you to think of ‘lunch’, you’ll probably think about a sandwich with crisps,” explained Dr Bassetti. “If I ask an Italian to think of pranzo - Italian for ‘lunch’ - he’ll think of a dish of pasta followed by meat and vegetables.”


liq