The following post by Dr. Aneta Pavlenko appeared on the Psychology Today blog, “Life as a bilingual”
Like all other walks of life, academia is not immune to fashions. In the study of bilingualism, one such trend has been the study of “the bilingual cognitive advantage”, the theory that experience of using two languages – and selecting one, while inhibiting the other – affects brain structure and strengthens ‘executive control’ akin to other experiences, such as musical training, navigation, and even juggling. This strengthening has been linked to a variety of findings: the superiority of bilingual children and adults in performance on tasks requiring cognitive control, resistance of bilingual brains to cognitive decline, and the delayed onset of dementia (see here).
Touted in the popular media, these findings captured our hearts and minds and for good reason: for those of us who are bi- and multilingual, this is good news and the focus itself is a pleasant change from concerns about bilingual disadvantage that permeated many early debates on bilingualism. But has the pendulum swung too much in the other direction? Has bilingualism become a commodity we are trying to sell, instead of an experience we are trying to understand? And is there, in fact, a consensus that the knowledge of more than one language offers us something more than the joys of reading and conversing in two languages and a leg up in learning the third, among other things?
Baum, S. & Titone D. (2014). Moving towards a neuroplasticity view of bilingualism, executive control, and aging. Applied Psycholinguistics, 35, 857-894.
Valian, V. (2014, in press) Bilingualism and cognition. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition.