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Bilingual brains more focused, reveals NYU Abu Dhabi research
BY MOHAN VADAYAR February 15, 2016
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ABU DHABI: Good news for linguists, especially bilinguals who speak in English and Arabic. They are smarter than their counterparts, the monolinguals.

In a “smart” world, this finding by a couple of researchers from New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) gives the required moral boost to try English if one is Arabic speaking and vise versa.

This is because, as the researchers claim, different parts of the brain are used for switching between languages in speaking and listening – for example, English and Arabic.

The finding, the result of a linguistic research done at NYUAD, “is a novel finding because no one has done this kind of comparison before,” they said in the UAE capital.

The researchers, Esti Blanco-Elorrieta, a PhD candidate in psychology at NYUAD and lead author of the study, and Associate Professor of Linguistics and Psychology at NYUAD in the Neuroscience of Language Lab, Liina Pylkkänen, were trying to figure out what happens in the bilingual brain when people switch between languages.

For the first time, they have illustrated that switching languages when speaking and switching languages when listening engages different parts of the brain. They recently published their findings in The Journal of Neuroscience.

They wrote: “A key concept in the field of neuroscience is cognitive control — the idea that humans must be able to focus on certain tasks and block out unnecessary stimuli in order to accomplish a goal. A goal can be anything, from navigating one’s way home from work, to ordering a coffee.

“Knowing two languages — and switching between them — requires a great deal of cognitive control, since a language that is not in use at a particular time needs to be blocked off.

“This fact has led some scientists to believe that bilinguals have an advantage over monolinguals because knowing two languages requires more cognitive control than knowing one.

“This bilingual advantage hypothesis idea suggests that bilinguals’ brains are in better shape to focus on given tasks and ignore unimportant stimuli. This gives bilinguals an advantage not only in the use of language, but also in any undertaking that requires focus,” they said

“It’s a big question in the field of language cognition, whether there is something special about language switching and language control that’s particular to language, or whether the same brain machinery is applied for both language and non-language switching and control,” said Blanco-Elorrieta.

Blanco-Elorrieta and her adviser Pylkkänen developed an experiment that tested switching languages and switching conceptual categories in both speaking and listening. The goal was to determine to what extent the regions of the brain engaged during these activities overlapped or were distinct.

The researchers found that when listening, switching between languages (Arabic and English) enlisted different neural networks. This led them to argue if the bilingual language hypothesis is indeed correct.

Research like this is fundamental in the sense that it helps scientists learn how the brain processes language. But it could have a more practical application. She added that Abu Dhabi is a fantastic place to do this kind of research, because there are so many people who speak a variety of languages. “We are always looking for volunteers,” she said.
 

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