A wonderful TED talk called The Linguistic Genius of Babies shows (http://www.ted.com/talks/patricia_kuhl_the_linguistic_genius_of_babies.html?awesm=on.ted.com_babybrain)

astonishing findings about how babies learn one language over another — by listening to the humans around them and “taking statistics” on the sounds they need to know. Clever lab experiments (and brain scans) show how 6-month-old babies use sophisticated reasoning to understand their world.

I am grateful to my Inanimate Alice colleague in Argentina who flagged up an article about the benefits of learning more than one language which nicely complements the video. (I  can locate the link if you need it). My own Spanish is fairly rudimentary but I managed to make some sense of it – I think.

The article focused on a recent research project at The University of Granada, along with other studies carried out over the past 40 years that draw similar conclusions. Researchers analysed the brain activity of children who speak more than one language fluently and regularly. They found that bilingual children have better memory, attention spans and greater flexibility of thought than mono-linguists.

Para el doctor Poulin-Dubois estos hallazgos son sumamente relevantes porque ayudan a mejorar el control de la atención. “El tener un alto conocimiento de dos idiomas, y utilizarlos frecuentemente -es decir ser bilingüe- es beneficioso dado que mejora la capacidad de prestar atención e incrementa el entrenamiento de la memoria”, concluyó el especialista.

It seems that in timed problem solving tests, the thought processes of bilingual people move rapidly from one language to another in order to retrieve information. Thus, knowing 2 words for the same concept creates flexibility and, it is claimed, freer thinking. Naturally this requires practice but this research is evidence of the extreme adaptability and plasticity of the brain.

I attended a conference on dyslexia in Paris years ago (tough job but someone had to do it) and was astounded at the ability of the translators to listen to technical language and deliver it in another language almost simultaneously. They were able to identify central concepts and activate the appropriate section of their brains to interpret for a mixed audience swiftly and clearly, while making judgements about what stimuli to ignore. No wonder they could work only in 20 minute shifts: the cognitive effort involved is tremendous.

It is claimed that the greater flexibility inherent in speaking 2 languages regularly contributes to a stimulating cycle in which learners continue to stretch their mental muscles. This results in improved creative or lateral thinking. At the same time, bilinguals put more thought into communicating as they need to consider the language they must use with each person with whom they speak. They think at a meta level when conversing.

Other studies have shown that the cognitive benefits of bilingualism are apparent from 2 years of age. It’s not just that the 2 year olds solve problems better, but that they are less distractible than mono-linguists: they are accustomed to listening and adapting to two modes of speech.

I tend to be suspicious of specific programmes that purport to improve learning disproportionately. However, I am convinced that being fluent in more than one language does create transferable skills. I suspect this is not least because learning a language inevitably involves understanding something of the culture of another country. I know that after my weekly Spanish class, my brain hurts. I am consciously attempting to remember and integrate and connect to an enormous amount of information (vocabulary, grammar, my name) while communicating (at a very basic level) and being aware of audience. And, after all, what better way to teach our children to be aware of different perspectives, other points of view?

So what? Well, it is too late once children are in our schools to create bilingual speakers except in very specific circumstances, and not practicable either. I suppose from this we can glean yet more evidence about the amazing plasticity of the brain and how important it is to flex those mental muscles.

But now I’m going to slob in front of ‘The Sopranos’!