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Does speaking several languages really make you smarter?

Over the past few years, countless studies have come to the conclusion that bilingualism provides more than just an advantage when we’re travelling or conducting meetings with foreign business partners. It’s also good for the brain: individuals who speak more than one language supposedly have higher levels of cognitive ability than those who don’t.

Here at London Translations, we’ve even written about the phenomenon before. In June, a study carried out at the University of Edinburgh and published in the Annals of Neurology found that age-related declines in cerebral function are slower in bilingual than monolingual individuals. This applied both to subjects who were bilingual from childhood and those who picked up a second language later in life – surely an impetus for just about anybody to pick up a phrasebook!

However, as with any nascent scientific theory, the notion that bilingualism confers a cognitive advantage has attracted its naysayers. Most recently, a study carried out at Abertay University in Dundee – this time the work of language experts as opposed to cognitive scientists – has come to the conclusion that speaking several languages might actually have very little to do with how smart a person is.

‘No conclusive evidence’

According to the Daily Mail, the researchers originally set out to examine whether or not knowing more than one dialect was as beneficial to the brain as bilingualism. Using the Simon task to measure cognitive responses, they compared the brain power of groups of bilinguals, monolinguals, and individuals who spoke both Dundonian and standard Scottish English.

Expecting a result that at the very least corroborated previous studies, the language experts were surprised to discover no appreciable differences in the results for each group. Commenting on the findings, Vera Kempe – the university’s professor of psychology of language learning – said she had been “astonished”. She told the Mail: “At first we were stumped. How could this be? How could we have failed to find an effect, when we knew there was supposed to be one?”

On further investigation, Professor Kempe and her researchers found that their study was not, in fact, an anomaly, but “one in a now growing number of studies that fail to find that bilingualism makes you smarter”. She went on to argue that the notion might be the result of publication bias – a phenomenon in which myths are propagated because the studies that contradict them aren’t published for lack of interesting outcomes. “In other words, there is actually no conclusive evidence that bilingualism makes you smarter.”

This is not the first time that doubt has been cast on the supposed cognitive advantages of bilingualism. As the authors of the aforementioned University of Edinburgh acknowledged, another potential complicating factor is reverse causality – in this case, the possibility that smarter people are more likely to learn second languages, rather than vice versa.

Should we be concerned?

As language professionals, we at London Translations would love to believe that being bilingual provides an person with that bit more brain power than the rest of the population. Similarly, many have called for foreign languages to play a bigger role in the British school system, so studies like this one can be hard for some of us to swallow.

However, it’s critically important that we shouldn’t overlook the benefits that bilingualism does confer on us – things like insight into other cultures, for example, or the ability to have relationships with individuals from all kinds of backgrounds. Speaking several languages may or may not help us to process information more quickly, multitask or retain memories, but there’s no question that it changes the way we see the world.

To give Professor Kempe the last word: “[We should] learn languages not based on the selfish motive of boosting individual brain power, but because knowing languages affords us the opportunity to connect with different people from different backgrounds and cultures.”

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