Individuals who know multiple languages – bilinguals, trilinguals, or even polyglots – are oft portrayed as being more cultured and refined than their monolingual counterparts. But is there truly a difference in intelligence? As a trilingual myself, I have the constant need to control multiple thoughts in multiple languages throughout the course of the day. When speaking English myself, I have to suppress Arabic words when I am speaking English and English words while using Arabic. Although this may sound effortful, for the most part, bilinguals and such do not necessarily realize that this is mindfully occurring. In some situations, bilinguals have the opportunity to use two languages at the same time, which requires them to switch between words in different languages. Nevertheless, the question of whether bilinguals display this practice in other aspects of knowledge may shed some light on our understanding of intelligence.
Intelligence is often perceived to be the extent to which an individual can display and exercise knowledge. According to research done by Prior and Macwhinney at Carnegie Mellon University, bilinguals’ daily practice of inhibiting and switching between languages suggests that bilinguals are faster than monolinguals when suppressing task-irrelevant information or when asked to switch between two non-language based tasks (Prior & Macwhinney, 2010). Thus, the daily activity of sifting and sorting to find the appropriate words to use in a certain situation garner a greater ability to harness language itself, and ultimately, intellect. The most popular described advantage, however, regards the onset of dementia – it has been argued that bilingualism delays the onset of dementia by approximately five years (Prior & Macwhinney, 2010).
The distinct ability to harness language and manipulate it relatively unconsciously spurs brain activity, which, undoubtedly, is a major reason for older bilinguals to delay the onset of dementia. Merely decades ago, there was a very strong belief that bilingualism was harmful to young children; parents were discouraged from teaching their children a second language, as they were told it would damage their brains (Prior & Macwhinney, 2010). Now, though, researchers and scientists alike are unearthing the advantages of bilingualism. Understanding and harnessing a new language may be a difficult proposition, but the advantages of spending the time to learn a language (in class or on your own) may pay dividends, and in more ways than one.
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