How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Your brain on a second language: Bilingualism and brain power

Photo by Reigh LeBlanc/Flickr (Creative Commons)


Does being bilingual really make you smarter? Science staff writer Yudhijit Bhattacharjee made a good argument for it in the Sunday New York Times, citing several studies in recent years which suggest that the ability to speak a second language indeed boosts cognitive skills.

Key to the most recent understanding of how this works is a reversal in attitudes toward a second language being an "interference." Once thought to have hindered academic and intellectual development, this factor turns out not to be such a bad thing after all. Bhattacharjee writes:

They were not wrong about the interference: there is ample evidence that in a bilingual’s brain both language systems are active even when he is using only one language, thus creating situations in which one system obstructs the other.

But this interference, researchers are finding out, isn’t so much a handicap as a blessing in disguise. It forces the brain to resolve internal conflict, giving the mind a workout that strengthens its cognitive muscles.

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What is your most awkward language moment?

It's been well documented by now that growing up bilingual can be good for you. But getting there? Survivors of an English-learner upbringing can attest that it's not always an easy road, and that the bumps along it - some amusing, some awkward - continue well into adulthood.

I began learning English in kindergarten, learning it at the same time my immigrant parents did. Because I was so young, I quickly mastered the American accent, as did my immigrant peers. But one of the pitfalls of growing up in a household where everyone is learning English is that along the way, you pick up many of the mispronunciations common to English learners.

These mispronunciations vary depending on who is learning the language. For Spanish and Tagalog speakers, for example, the double "ee" of "sheep" is often pronounced like the "i" in "ship," and so forth. I got over the obvious mistakes fairly quickly.

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