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It all starts with dreams in English

People Mary

Claudia Civinini asks Dr Anne-Marie Connolly about her research into the positive effects on the brain of being a late bilingual and why bilingualism is a precious resource for Ireland

Your research found that the brains of those who learnt a second language later in life find it easier than early bilinguals or monolinguals to complete tasks involving switching and focusing attention. 

  • How did your experiment work and what are the conditions necessary to develop this cognitive benefit?

I used a computer-based task where subjects were presented with two sets of rules, much like the two sets of linguistic rules that a bilingual will have, and a set of circumstances under which each set of rules must be employed.
It allowed me to measure something called the ‘switch cost’, a measurement of the time it takes the brain to disengage from one set of rules, switch to the new set, and engage with them.

I found that those who had acquired their second language later in life were able to make this switch more quickly [than monolinguals or early bilinguals]. I attribute this to the fact that it is cognitively far more difficult to learn a second language later in life. Therefore, the extra effort required on the part of the brain involved – the executive control system – translates into an extra gain.

The executive control system manages a host of cognitive processes such as planning, working memory, attention, problem-solving, inhibition, mental flexibility and initiating and monitoring actions. We observed this bilingual advantage on people who had a reasonably high level of proficiency in their second language and used it daily or almost daily.

  • What could be the implications of these findings for policy-makers?

Following the logic that bilingualism uses the executive control system, the lifelong bilingual’s switching between two languages would boost the brain’s resilience. It would be better able to deal with the early symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. Bialystok and colleagues (2007) found that even in cases where monolinguals had significantly more formal education than bilinguals, bilinguals sought clinical help for observable symptoms 4.1 years later than those who spoke just one language.

This finding has later been shown again and again all over the world.

In addition, bilinguals have also been found to show significantly better cognitive recovery following stroke than monolinguals. Ireland has at its fingertips a powerful tool to help combat age-related cognitive decline in our citizens: learning or using our national language, Irish. A 2012 review estimated that the overall cost of dementia to Ireland was over €1.69 billion.

Far less tangibly measurable are the social, economic and psychological strains that the illness confers on both the people with the condition and their careers.

These figures underline the urgency of the problem, and until biological or pharmacological interventions are available to cure or prevent the disease it is useful to turn to other factors that may improve the brain’s resilience.

The findings of these kinds of studies have far-reaching implications for national policy and underscore the merit of assigning resources to reinvigorate and promote bilingualism in Ireland.

  • How do you implement an evidence-based approach in your daily practice as a director of studies?

At the moment we are developing a longitudinal study to track our learners from the moment they arrive at the school, all through their course and beyond, if possible. We want to capture the background of the learner before and as they learn with us – for example whether they are with a host family or in a shared apartment.

Who are they spending their out-of-class time with and how much are they switching between L1 and English, and in what circumstances? Imagine the possibilities that would be born out of this data to be able to tailor a language student’s experience to ensure they get the best out of their course.

I am working with my former PhD supervisor Paul Dockree to come up with a battery of tests and questionnaires that will enable us to collect an umbrella of data. Paul and I recently met with Thomas Bak, a leading figure in bilingual research, to discuss some of the specific questions that might be an interesting place to start and we will continue to seek his advice as the project develops.

I also encourage students to look beyond the short-term benefits of learning English and see the potential it has to reward them with long-term cognitive benefits.

I enjoy speaking to students about what is going on for them as they learn, for instance the first time they dream in English, or the first time they notice that their internal dialogue, or self-talk, has started to happen in English.

These are all markers that, in my opinion, suggest that English is acting less as a parasite to their more solidified L1 and is becoming a candidate for selection for cognitive processing – step one on the path to bilingualism.

‘How do you say that again?!’ – Dr Connolly explains the ups and downs of being bilingual

‘If I am an English–Italian bilingual ordering a sandwich in Milan there is no reason to expect that my brain will prepare the request both in Italian and in English. But this is not how the bilingual mind works.

It will offer both English and Italian, and it is the job of the executive control network to suppress English in this context and select Italian. It is out of this additional usage that the executive control network is strengthened and the bilingual advantage is born. Studies have found that bilingual children are superior on most cognitive tests, especially those requiring symbol manipulation and reorganisation. This is attributed to bilingual children’s superior metalinguistic awareness, or ability to solve linguistic and non-verbal problems that require them to ignore misleading information. Bilingual pre-schoolers have also been shown to have more advanced social skills than their monolingual peers.

The consequences of having joint activation of two languages in the mind of bilinguals affect both linguistic and non-linguistic processing. The advantages far outweigh the disadvantages. However, bilinguals have been found to control a smaller vocabulary set in each of their languages than monolinguals (but not overall if you combine both languages).

They can also be slightly slower on lexical retrieval and verbal-fluency tasks and less accurate on picture-naming tasks. Bilinguals also encounter more tip-of-the-tongue experiences than monolinguals and demonstrate poorer word identification through noise.’

What happens in the mind of a late bilingual?

‘For late bilinguals, L1 is solidified before L2 is acquired, which means that a relatively automatic neural circuit of syntactic and semantic networks has already become entrenched by the time L2 is introduced. This results in L2 acting in a parasitic capacity to L1, requiring the speaker to call to mind a target word in L1 in order to retrieve the same word in L2. In order to reduce the parasitic dependence of L2 on L1, late bilinguals must recruit a host of cognitive mechanisms and metacognitive strategies such as rehearsal, imagery and recoding. It is therefore reasonable to assume that late bilinguals who have managed to achieve high levels of proficiency have developed and exercised these things successfully.’

Dr Anne-Marie Connolly is the director of studies at Everest Language School in Dublin. She recently completed a PhD at Trinity College Dublin with the thesis: ‘Exploring Bilingual Cognition in Younger and Older Adults and Second Language Learners’