Speaking several languages improves people's ability to master complex thinking processes, a study by an international team of researchers finds. The results based on a macro-analysis of a variety of studies even indicate that multilingualism might delay the onset of age-related mental diminishment later in life. The study was commissioned by the European Commission.
In addition to possibly slowing down dementia, the researchers identify further main areas where multilingualism appears to have a positive impact, including learning, complex thinking and creativity, interpersonal skills, mental flexibility and communication skills.
Existing scientific evidence further indicates that memory function benefits from the knowledge and use of multiple languages. 'It is obvious that enhanced memory can have a profound impact on cognitive function,' says David Marsh of Jyväskylä University in Finland, who coordinated the research. Mr Marsh adds that this might be one of the reasons why multilingual individuals tend to be able to handle complex and demanding problem-solving tasks better than their monolingual counterparts.
Originally, this was believed to be true only of people who are truly bilingual or trilingual with a very advanced command of their languages. However, more recent research suggests that processes that change the brain's electrical activity are set in motion even when we start learning a new language. 'This is inspirational for anyone who has an opportunity to learn, or otherwise keep an additional language active in their lives,' Mr Marsh says.
Hence, the researchers believe that their findings go beyond the linguistic argument. 'Knowledge of more than one language could well open up forms of added value which go beyond the languages themselves and lead to 'multicompetence',' the report concludes. 'The implications are wide-ranging. If there are cognitive and behavioural benefits resulting from knowledge of more than one language, then there is a need to examine how this potential can be realised so as to maximise advantage.'
The report further argues that multilingualism should be recognised as a 'lever for economic growth and social cohesion', rather than an inconvenience. The value of languages should be communicated and their development supported through policy and education.
'The evidence clusters described here suggest that multilingualism is a resource which has the potential to play a key role in responding to the challenges of the present and future,' the report closes. 'It is one existing resource which is likely to nourish emergent processes of creativity that will help expand individual and societal opportunities.'
The study was conducted between May 2008 and June 2009 across the 27 EU Member States as well as Norway and Turkey. It takes into account scientific literature from Europe and beyond, plus input from 30 experts in the studied countries and a core scientific team.
The analysis was set against five hypotheses previously formulated by the Commission. These assume that there is a link between multilingualism and creativity: multilingualism broadens access to information and offers alternative ways of organising thought as well as of perceiving the surrounding world. Finally, it was surmised that learning a new language increases the potential for creative thought.