You have to use both languages all the time

This is an interesting article published in the New York Times about the advantage of bilingual. The following are some questions to cognitive neuroscientist, Ellen Bialystok. She spent almost 40 years learning about how bilingualism sharpens the mind.

The Bilingual Advantage

Published: May 30, 2011


Q. So what exactly did you find on this unexpected road?

A. As we did our research, you could see there was a big difference in the way monolingual and bilingual children processed language. We found that if you gave 5- and 6-year-olds language problems to solve, monolingual and bilingual children knew, pretty much, the same amount of language.

But on one question, there was a difference. We asked all the children if a certain illogical sentence was grammatically correct: “Apples grow on noses.” The monolingual children couldn’t answer. They’d say, “That’s silly” and they’d stall. But the bilingual children would say, in their own words, “It’s silly, but it’s grammatically correct.” The bilinguals, we found, manifested a cognitive system with the ability to attend to important information and ignore the less important.


Q. How does this work — do you understand it?

A. Yes. There’s a system in your brain, the executive control system. It’s a general manager. Its job is to keep you focused on what is relevant, while ignoring distractions. It’s what makes it possible for you to hold two different things in your mind at one time and switch between them.

If you have two languages and you use them regularly, the way the brain’s networks work is that every time you speak, both languages pop up and the executive control system has to sort through everything and attend to what’s relevant in the moment. Therefore the bilinguals use that system more, and it’s that regular use that makes that system more efficient.


Q. One of your most startling recent findings is that bilingualism helps forestall the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. How did you come to learn this?

A. We did two kinds of studies. In the first, published in 2004, we found that normally aging bilinguals had better cognitive functioning than normally aging monolinguals. Bilingual older adults performed better than monolingual older adults on executive control tasks. That was very impressive because it didn’t have to be that way. It could have turned out that everybody just lost function equally as they got older.

That evidence made us look at people who didn’t have normal cognitive function. In our next studies , we looked at the medical records of 400 Alzheimer’s patients. On average, the bilinguals showed Alzheimer’s symptoms five or six years later than those who spoke only one language. This didn’t mean that the bilinguals didn’t have Alzheimer’s. It meant that as the disease took root in their brains, they were able to continue functioning at a higher level. They could cope with the disease for longer.


Q. So high school French is useful for something other than ordering a special meal in a restaurant?

A. Sorry, no. You have to use both languages all the time. You won’t get the bilingual benefit from occasional use.


Q. Many immigrants choose not to teach their children their native language. Is this a good thing?

A. I’m asked about this all the time. People e-mail me and say, “I’m getting married to someone from another culture, what should we do with the children?” I always say, “You’re sitting on a potential gift.”

There are two major reasons people should pass their heritage language onto children. First, it connects children to their ancestors. The second is my research: Bilingualism is good for you. It makes brains stronger. It is brain exercise.

Read more here.

I wish this scientific article, especially the last answer, can reach Arab immigrants. Unfortunately, many Arab families in the US speak English with their children at home.


11 thoughts on “You have to use both languages all the time

  1. I have noticed that as well with Arab Families. I wish they would teach their children both languages. Alhamdullah, my parents did teach us both at home…I’m stronger in English but I still speak more Arabic than some of my friends who have 2 Arab parents!

  2. And what’s funny is that the little Arab kids speak better English than their parents and actually make fun of their parents too.
    Since my girl -who speaks Arabic only- started going to the daycare last Feb., her English is starting to take a shape. I love watching her building sentences in English but at the same time it scares me that she might lose all the Arabic I’ve been teaching her. Seeing how easy it is for her to learn English makes me more determined to teach her more and more Arabic, and maybe fos7a too.
    Thank you for sharing this article.

    1. It is very easy for kids to learn more than one language. I meet many people who speak three languages fluently. Families who live in a different culture have the privilege of helping their children speak two languages fluently. Unfortunately, I meet some Arabs in the US who think Arabic will not help their children’s future. I am glad you want to teach your daughter Arabic fos7a. Good for you! And thanks for sharing your thought about this subject.

  3. We speak Chechen at home, so I can relate I guess to this 🙂 – very much relate ,, thanks Jaraad, always informative info here 🙂

    1. I believe, from experience, there is no language that is not important. When I was in Malaysia I spoke English because it was easy and everyone there speaks English. I only learned few conversations in Malay. Now, I regret I didn’t learn the language very well. I could have used this advantage to teach there for at least one year which I hope I can do one time.
      What many people miss about languages is that by learning a language you learn a culture. By teaching your daughter Chechen you teach her the culture as well. And this is what many Arab families miss in the US. That is by not teaching their children Arabic they are not teaching them their culture.

  4. Great post. I agree that children with more than one language and heritage have a wonderful opportunity, and should, for a more complete sense of self, speak both (or all) languages.

    Generally, language skills are lost by the 3rd generation of immigrants ie the grandchildren of the ones who immigrate. However, the American “melting pot” view of immigration tends to hasten that. Also, the US is such a huge power unto itself that English is viewed as sufficient. In recent elections the issue of making Spanish an official language of all or parts of the US. Watching candidates squirm through that topic is hilarious from bilingual Canada. 😀

    I decided to take a summer course in either Arabic or Italian this May-August. I decided on the same day classes started.

    1. Cont’d
      I discovered that to take an undergrad course for credit I have to formally apply to the uni including high school info and transcripts from at least 2 of my degrees–one of which I did at this uni (where i am on faculty) on scholarship. I can only start in September since I missed all other deadlines (even for a July start). I’m trying to find a way to blame my mom for my missing deadlines. 😀 😛

      1. Regarding how a language skill disappears after the 3rd generation, I have noticed that myself. Many of the teens and 20 something Muslims I meet here communicate with difficulty in Arabic. They learned Arabic from their Arab parents. I doubt in future their kids can speak any Arabic. I am saddened by this because I believe learning Arabic is not just a culture thing it is very important for Muslims to learn and value their religion. After all Quran is the single most important thing in Islam. And it is truly a different experience when one recites a verse from Quran knowing what it means rather than just reciting the words.

        Doesn’t having two degrees imply that you already passed high school? I wonder if I can find my 21 years old high school transcript 🙂
        Good luck with your language class!

  5. Jaraad, we found it nearly impossible in the US to teach the Beans Arabic. They understood a bit but English just takes over. Shoot we moved to Jordan and put them in Arabic language schools and their English is STILL stronger.. Darn English ;). Seriously, though, I agree that it is very important for kids to know both parent’s languages in order to understand who they are. I’m saddened by Arabs who don’t teach their kids. We actually had a nanny whom we had speak Arabic with ButterBean. Her own daughter doesn’t speak Arabic, but after she heard we were teaching ButterBean Arabic, she required her mom to teach her daughter. So, here’s the Bean family, pushing Arabic back into America, one family at a time! Teehee.

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