Bilingualism makes brains of all ages more adept at multitasking, ignoring distractions and monitoring the surrounding environment, according to an op-ed piece in the New York Times by Science Magazine staff writer Yudhijit Bhattacharjee.
"Being bilingual, it turns out, makes you smarter," Bhattacharjee wrote. "It can have a profound effect on your brain, improving cognitive skills not related to language and even shielding against dementia in old age. The bilingual experience improves the brain’s so-called executive function — a command system that directs the attention processes that we use for planning, solving problems and performing various other mentally demanding tasks."
And being bilingual pays off, too. Last week the NPR show "All Things Considered" filed a story from Utah about the Beehive State's uncanny ability to attract a lot of tech-sector jobs. A big reason for that upward trend is that "Utah happens to have the highest percentage of foreign-language speakers in the country. It's the state's secret economic weapon. Every year, thousands of Mormon missionaries come back to Utah after spending two years abroad, learning a foreign language, foreign customs and intricacies of a foreign culture."
Marcus Mabry, who writes for the New York Times' global International Herald Tribune, is raising his children trilingual (in addition to learning English at school, the children exclusively speak French and Mandarin with their father and nanny, respectively). Mabry's response to Bhattacharjee's assertion about bilingualism making people smarter: "Of course, we already knew this, those of us who are bilingual: We are smarter than other people. Still, it was nice to have an article in the New York Times Sunday Review confirm it. Whatever your background, or language, the benefits of speaking more than one are obvious."
But as Mabry pointed out in his blog post by linking to the 2010 New York Times article "Looking for babysitters: foreign language a must," not all experts agree that bilingualism results in increased smarts. Ellen Bialystok, a professor of psychology at York University in Toronto and the author of "Bilingualism in Development: Language, Literacy and Cognition,” is quoted in that 2010 piece as saying that being bilingual "doesn’t make kids smarter. There are documented cognitive developments, but whatever smarter means, it isn’t true.”
Bhattacharjee's piece was published Sunday but remained the most emailed article on the New York Times website as of Thursday afternoon.