Cognitive Benefits of Language Acquisition

Joseph Lo Bianco, Professor of Language and Literacy Education at the University of Melbourne, recently spoke at a conference I attended.  He is a language planning advisor, working with United Nations organisation, UNESCO, helping to develop language policies in multilingual areas.  He spoke passionately about the need to prevent the erosion of language skills.

Lo Bianco outlined how extinction of the mother tongue language tends to occur within just three generations of migrant families coming to this country.  He spoke about the detrimental impact the erosion of language skills has on cognitive capacity, the loss of intercountry family communication and upon job opportunities in an increasingly globalised world.  In certain geographic areas, increased use of a dominant language can quickly eradicate languages used by minority populations. Indigenous languages are being lost at an alarming rate in Australia; a country that Joe claims is considered the ‘graveyard of languages’.

The importance of widespread language education, competence, development or maintenance of bilingualism was highlighted, with the many cognitive benefits of bilingualism and multilingualism emphasised.  The benefits associated with bilingualism extend to improvements in executive function as well as more active dorsolateral prefrontal cortex – the same area of the brain associated with attention and inhibition.  Switching between languages enhances cognitive control.  Lo Bianco links the learning of language to the importance of encouraging student persistence in skill acquisition and expectations of high levels of achievement.

Research conducted by Julia Morales Castillo, at University of Granada, has identified those who are bilingual show benefits to working memory.  Planning and cognitive control are other cognitive areas that have been enhanced in bilinguals. There are also indicators that students who are bilingual are more adept at acquiring additional languages, perhaps because of the cognitive benefits already acquired through being bilingual.

There are significant benefits – cognitive, educational, social, cultural and economic in migrant families maintaining their mother tongue.

© Michele Juratowitch  
michele@clearingskies.com.au