Bilingualism is good for the brain

Many FlandersNews readers might speak English as a second language. And this is very healthy, a study by the University of Ghent's PhD candidate Evy Woumans proved. Bilingualism trains the brain and leads to cognitive advantages in children, adults, and even patients with a neural disorder like Alzheimer's.

Two years ago, PhD student Evy Woumans selected 54 children of a similar level of intelligence and linguistic development. The kids were taken from the third year of two kindergarten classes in Wallonia. The first class was subject to 'immersive' bilingual learning, the second class simply followed monolingual courses. At the end of the school year, cognitive skills were compared between the two groups.

"Even though both groups had improved, the bilingual pre-schoolers averagely achieved higher scores on intelligence tests", explains Ms Woumans, who carried out her study at the UGhent Theoretical and Experimental Psychology department.

An earlier co-study from the university hospitals of Ghent and Brussels had already shown that bilingualism can postpone the negative effects of Alzheimer's Disease for up to five years. "Moreover, yet another two different studies revealed that normal, healthy adult bilinguals also cognitively perform better than their monolingual peers. Especially bilinguals who are actively working with language, like translators and interpreters, prove to be at the top of the achievers.”

In a final study, Ms Woumans investigated how bilinguals are able to select the right language in different situations. She found that the face of the subject's interlocutor plays a crucial role here. "If a bilingual person sees the face of someone who he or she knows only speaks one language, then that single language is activated in the brain. If the bilingual person knows that his or her interlocutor is also bilingual, then both concerning languages are activated at the sight of the interlocutor's face", illustrates Ms Woumans.