Bioethics Blogs

Is Multilingualism a Form of Cognitive Enhancement?

The following post is part of a special series emerging from Contemporary Issues in Neuroethics, a graduate-level course out of Emory University’s Center for Ethics.

People often ask me what language I dream in. I usually tell them that I dream in both languages – Romanian and English – and that it depends on the content of the dream and on the people featured in it. I associate emotional states with my native Romanian, while organized, sequential thinking is easier in English. Most of the time, I am not even aware of the identity of the language I produce and hear in my dreams.

Leaving the mysterious dimension of dreams behind, how does the multilingual brain navigate the world? Faced with an information-dense environment, it is able to switch its language of appraisal at the moment’s need. Consider the increasingly large group of bilingual English-speaking Hispanics in the United States. Most of them use English in their academic and work environments, then effortlessly switch to Spanish when talking to family members and other Spanish speakers. They also retrieve autobiographical memories in the original language of encoding without losing any more details than a monolingual individual. Given a context, multilingual individuals are able to adjust to the linguistic requirements of the situation. The multilingual brain is, therefore, an adaptable brain.

This leads us to the next point of inquiry. How does speaking several languages sculpt the brain? The Brain and Language Laboratory for Neuroimaging led by Dr. Laura-Ann Petitto has been investigating the differential activity in monolingual and bilingual brains during comprehension tasks, and has found that bilinguals show increased activation in the left inferior frontal cortex, an area associated with semantic processing and behavior inhibition.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.