Bilingual Brain Advantage

During the decade politicians were banning bilingual education, I was in graduate school studying linguistics, including language acquisition–even bilingual language acquisition–and wishing we could all have bilingual (or trilingual) education. Children raised by parents with different native languages had the easiest time of it, especially those who conversed with each parent almost exclusively in their own languages. Next best would be learning any language while the language acquisition system was still open, as when children learn one language at school while speaking another at home.

And then there’s our system, where we not only discourage such home native language learning, we native English speakers postpone intense second language study until our brains have already pruned out the acquisition system that supports full fluency and native pronunciation. We’ve been robbed.

Fluently multilingual speakers have obvious career, travel, cultural, and social advantages. Many of you paid a social price as you developed these skills, along with the intellectual effort involved, but you end up with wider opportunities and, it stands to reason, amazing brains.

Now there are studies suggesting that you bilingual speakers might even delay the onset of Alzheimer disease. That’s how good a brain workout you’re getting, no matter which language you’re using. Psychologist Ellen Bialystok said in an NPR interview, “Even if you are in a context that is utterly monolingual, where you think there is absolutely no reason to think about Chinese or Spanish or French, it is part of the activated network that’s going on in your brain.”1

The study, published in Neurology, included 211 Alzheimer patients, approximately half bilingual, and it concluded “that the bilingual patients had been diagnosed 4.3 years later and had reported the onset of symptoms 5.1 years later than the monolingual patients. The groups were equivalent on measures of cognitive and occupational level, there was no apparent effect of immigration status, and the monolingual patients had received more formal education. There were no gender differences.” It confirmed findings of a previous study. 2

NPR’s Gretchen Cuda-Kroen reports that 20% of American homes speak another language at home, while around the world, there could be as many as two-thirds of children being raised bilingual.3

The economic advantage of a multilingual population hasn’t inspired our educational policy. Maybe it’s because we’re lacking that brain advantage in the first place.

  1. Ellen Bialystok, PhD, interview by Gretchen Cuda-Kroen. “Being Bilingual May Boost Your Brain Power” NPR. April 4, 2011
  2. Fergus I.M. Craik, PhD, Ellen Bialystok, PhD, and Morris Freedman, MD. “”Delaying the onset of Alzheimer disease: Bilingualism as a form of cognitive reserve.”.” Neurology. November 9, 2010. (accessed 04 04, 2011).
  3. Gretchen Cuda-Kroen. “Being Bilingual May Boost Your Brain Power” NPR. April 4, 2011

Text © Gwyn Nichols 2011. All Rights Reserved.

“Let Silence Do the Heavy Lifting”

“Let silence do the heavy lifting.” — Susan Scott

Lauren Owen quoted this in “10 Ways to Avoid Death by Meetings,” suggesting we “give people some time to respond. As we tell clients: ‘Let silence do the heavy lifting.’ You are not hosting a radio show. You don’t need to fill every minute with your pearls of wisdom. It’s ok to have dead air. Sometimes people need time to form their thoughts before they commit to speak.”

A couple decades ago, I learned of a study on teacher questioning. It concluded that when teachers asked questions, it took most students about twenty seconds to hear and process the question, answer it internally, decide whether to express it, and raise a hand. And the study also showed that teachers allowed–two seconds! So the advice to allow three to five seconds sounds magnanimous, but isn’t. Even knowing that, I can still get impatient or doubt the effectiveness of my questions and start rephrasing them before the clock ticks twice.

So what if we allow others some processing time?

And what if we allow our own minds a few more seconds? Days? Years? Allowing rest periods for incubation is vital to the creative process. Don’t assume that silence is a block. Relax. Listen. Breathe. Wait. “Let silence do the heavy lifting.”

Text © Gwyn Nichols 2011

Related Post:

The Power of Receiving

Learning Overload

No solitude today. Interestingly enough, it was an exhibit on brains which left my brain too saturated with vivid imagery, rapid delivery, random information, and crowd noises to process what I think I might have learned.

If you’re writing a book, please continue.

The book remains an impressive technological feat. And it’s still one of my favorite ways to learn. Ah, to sit quietly, listening to one almost silent voice, following that carefully mapped train of thought, taking my own pace, absorbing beautiful language.

Yes, you should write a book.

If You Build It, They Will See It

Some people go to all the trouble of designing and producing buildings, only to make them ugly. Why not hire an architect who understands proportions? Select beautiful colors for the paint? Arrange landscaping that beautifies? Did they really save time and money by building ugly?

Birdhouse Among the Flowers

Beauty is one of my core values.

Even if beauty isn’t one of yours, consider how much advertisers spend to catch our visual attention, and remember that visual learners are in the majority. So whatever you make, you might as well make it beautiful.

I’m preparing for a new class. Therefore, I’m revising a PowerPoint ancillary beyond recognition, saving few textbook images and throwing the rest out. Not only do these slides need editorial improvements and additional content, they’re unbearably ugly. The color scheme lacks contrast, the fonts are small, and the text is dense; therefore, it’s unreadable. There’s no attention to the symbolism of color. The illustrations are cheap clip art–worse than none at all.

Beauty doesn’t always have to cost a penny more than ugliness. It does require time and caring. It’s only a little more time and caring, compared to the scope of the whole project. So as long as you’re building something, please make it beautiful.

Text © Gwyn Nichols 2011

Photo © DM Baker, iStockPhoto #000001800069

Need a Nap?

I’m on spring break! Before I tackled various maternal, domestic, and academic projects, cleaned my upholstery, and attended a workshop on how to pay for another graduate degree, I napped!

Yawning Newborn
Photo copyrighted, Vivid pixels istockPhoto #00000382919

Imagine that. Theoretically, I already know about sleep’s importance to my health, learning, and inspiration, but do I schedule enough of it?

The National Sleep Foundation classifies naps as planned, emergency, or habitual. This one qualified as emergency. I didn’t feel qualified to drive. And I could feel a cold coming on if I didn’t supercharge my immune system.

My main resolution–to breathe–has branched out to include meditation and yoga, and now, sleep. I shared Arianna Huffington’s hilarious speech on the subject in an earlier post, but I was teaching two night classes at the time and I didn’t schedule those naps. Here’s my chance to commit to that self-care. I’m sure I’ll be all the smarter for it. Maybe I’ll even remember to check my pockets before I wash another phone.


Text © Gwyn Nichols 2011

My Students’ Best Advice

My students are in finals week. I asked for advice to pass along to future students, and they all said,


They sound even more adamant than I did that first day of class when I warned them.

But let’s word that positively, since we now understand that our brains tend to negate the negatives, ignoring the don’ts and nots and nevers, as though converting all positive and negative integers to their absolute values.




What We Learn from Watson

My interest in IBM’s Jeopardy-winning Watson was initially syntactical. It has taken decades to teach computers to understand and speak a human language almost as well as your average three-year-old. Add to that a timed challenge, and a question-shaped answer, and the linguistic complexity is mind-boggling. I had to know more.

It turns out, it’s bigger than that–and simpler. Winning has as much to do with knowing when you know, and when you don’t.

IBM Watson Team posing after Jeopardy
IBM Watson Team posing after Jeopardy

In a Q & A, someone asked about Watson’s advantage in reading the question and beginning millions of computations before a human contestant could hear the question. Watson’s team responded, “The clues are in English–Brad and Ken’s native language; not Watson’s. Watson must calculate its response in 2-3 seconds and determine if it’s confident enough to buzz in, because as you know, you lose money if you buzz in and respond incorrectly. This is a huge challenge, especially because humans tend to know what they know and know what they don’t know. Watson has to do thousands of calculations before it knows what it knows and what it doesn’t.” [Emphasis mine.] (See Reddit’s Q & A with the team here.)

In this game, as in life, what’s called “confidence”–the accurate assessment of relative knowledge or ignorance–matters at least as much as the answers themselves. Homer Hickam, author of Rocket Boys, said, “It is better to confess ignorance than provide it.” Turns out that knowing when we’re ignorant might be the better part of intelligence.

Text © Gwyn Nichols 2011