More than half of the world’s population is bilingual —an extraordinary and complex ability that few have properly understood. How are two languages able to coexist in the same brain? What are the advantages and challenges of being bilingual? How do we learn languages, or forget them?
Neuropsychologist Albert Costa, who died last year, addresses these questions in his book The Bilingual Brain: And What It Tells Us about the Science of Language. A former professor of the Pompeu Fabra University in Spain, Costa focused on the cognitive and neural underpinnings of language processing.
Costa uses neuro-linguistic research to investigate the impact of bilingualism on daily life — from infancy to old age. His studies show that newborn children, who are only hours old, are able to detect a change of language. At four to six months, toddlers can distinguish between languages by looking at the speaker’s mouth.
Knowing two languages has many upsides — bilingual children have a lower egocentric bias, the tendency to rely too heavily on one’s own perspective. They have better attentional control, and also a greater cognitive reserve.
Trials have reported the onset of dementia in bilingual children up to four years later than others. Being bilingual also has flip sides, however. For instance, such individuals have a smaller vocabulary in their two languages as compared to monolinguals, Costa writes.
The Guardian writes in its review, “… This book is a great testimony to (Costa’s) lifetime of research into the subject. Although peppered with a few technical aspects of neuroscience, it’s very readable: the prose is gentle, anecdotal, witty, personal and — despite the many controversies — balanced. He doesn’t deride monoglots (they have advantages too), but simply invites us to wonder what happens if you double up on what is already an extraordinary human ability — language.”
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The book has been translated from Spanish to English by John W Schwieter, professor at Wilfrid Laurier University.
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