Bilingualism transforms language, cognition, and the brain

Judith F. Kroll (The Pennsylvania State University)

There is a great deal of mythology about bilingualism. Some worry that children exposed to

more than one language early in life will become confused and fail to become a fluent speaker of

either language. Others think that language mixing produces disfluencies that indicate underlying

pathology. Current studies show that these beliefs are simply wrong. Using two languages

actively does indeed change each of a bilingual’s two languages but in ways that hold

consequences for the mind and the brain that are largely positive. The continual availability of

both languages requires the bilingual to become a mental juggler, learning to negotiate the

competition arising from the language not in use to selectively focus on the intended language.

Bilingualism may impose unique demands on cognition but the successful resolution of those

demands may translate into benefits for learning and memory more generally. Bilingualism

creates an openness to new language learning and sharpens the ability to resolve cognitive

conflict. These consequences are complex because the contexts in which multiple languages are

learned and used differ across groups of bilingual speakers. In this talk I focus on the way that

bilingualism transforms language use and, in doing so, changes the mind and the brain.