But neuroscience researchers are increasingly coming to a consensus that bilingualism has many positive consequences for the brain. Several such researchers traveled to this month's annual meeting of the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C., to present their findings. Among them:What kind of bilingual education, however, is an entirely different matter, the article notes. Many of the studies appear to be on adult users of two or more languages, not little kids who are proficient speakers of one language but who are learning a different language in which they are not immersed. Would Korean students learning English a few times a week at school or in a hagwon gain any such benefit?
• Bilingual children are more effective at multi-tasking.
• Adults who speak more than one language do a better job prioritizing information in potentially confusing situations.
• Being bilingual helps ward off early symptoms of Alzheimer's disease in the elderly.
These benefits come from having a brain that's constantly juggling two — or even more — languages, said Ellen Bialystok, a psychology professor at York University in Toronto, who spoke at the AAAS annual meeting. For instance, a person who speaks both Hindi and Tamil can't turn Tamil off even if he's speaking to only Hindi users, because the brain is constantly deciding which language is most appropriate for a given situation.
This constant back-and-forth between two linguistic systems means frequent exercise for the brain's so-called executive control functions, located mainly in the prefrontal cortex. This is the part of the brain tasked with focusing one's attention, ignoring distractions, holding multiple pieces of information in mind when trying to solve a problem, and then flipping back and forth between them.
Nor does it even try to answer the question of how schools can best teach, say, kids who speak Spanish, Korean, or Mandarin at home but must eventually learn English so they can do well in school.