View from the desk
Dr Anne-Marie Connolly (left), Director of Studies at Everest Language School in Ireland
Anne-Marie Connolly

This week, Dr Anne-Marie Connolly, Director of Studies at Everest Language School in Ireland, who recently graduated from Trinity College Dublin with a PhD in Neuroscience, talks about her research focused on language learners and people who speak more than one language.

What motivates your students to learn English?


'Why do you want to learn English?' This is a question that we often ask our students at the beginning of their course, and they usually tell us that their motivation comes from their need to use English for their jobs, to pass the exams necessary for them to get a place at university, in order to travel the world or just because, "English is now necessary for life".


We have yet to meet a student who tells us that their motivation for learning English is driven by a desire to alter the function and structure of their brain and improve their cognitive abilities and to hopefully build up cognitive reserve which will help their brain to age healthily as they get older.


And yet this is what is happening when we learn languages. I am Everest Language School's Director of Studies, and I have recently been awarded my PhD from Trinity College Dublin. My thesis explored the ways that learning languages and becoming bilingual impact upon the development, function and change of basic cognitive abilities.


What is happening in our brains when we learn a new language?


Think about the way that the bilingual mind is organised - there are two possibilities, the first possibility is that the two languages of a bilingual are stored separately and when one language is "turned on" the other language is "turned off". The second possibility is that both languages overlap and that the brain has an exceptional method of managing the process of selecting one language while simultaneously suppressing the other.


Our students will know that this process can be quite difficult, especially when the new language is at the early stages and the dominant mother tongue is very difficult to suppress but as proficiency in the second language increases, this linguistic cognitive control improves. Fully fledged bilinguals don't even notice the enormous feat of coordination that their brain has achieved when they manage to switch between two languages and two sets of linguistic rules regarding sentence structure, tone, register and everything else that is involved in comprehensible, articulate, appropriate speech.


Is it more difficult for adults to learn English?


During my PhD, I compared the cognitive abilities of early bilinguals (people who learned their second language before age 7) and late bilinguals (people who learned their second language after the age of 12) and found that there was an advantage for late bilinguals. This finding may be surprising for some people who might expect that early bilingualism is best - the more time you have speaking and switching between two languages the more "training" your brain gets: it's a logical theory. However, we attribute our finding [that it is the late bilinguals who have the advantage] to the fact that learning a new language after the age of 12 is a far more cognitively difficult task. The effort that a late bilingual needs to put into suppressing the dominant mother tongue to select the less-dominant new language requires a far more intensive training regime for the cognitive system and this then extends beyond the linguistic system and results in a generalised fortification of the executive control system as a whole.


What kind of experiments did you do in your PhD?


One experiment I did was to try to track the emergence of this advantage in language learners, in other words to try to answer the question 'how bilingual do you need to be before this kind of cognitive advantage comes online'. To do this I used a test-retest design and tested English language learners before and after a six-month intensive language course. To measure their cognitive control I used behavioural psychological tests and EEG (electroencephalogram).


I also used extensive questionnaires to capture all of the background elements that may or may not have impacted upon the learners' progress in learning English and subsequent improvement in executive control. In this experiment the results were less clear than in the first one. Overall I didn't see any improvement in executive control after six months of language learning, however when I split the learners into those who had made the most progress (moved up from beginner to elementary to pre-intermediate to intermediate) versus those who made the least progress (those who moved from beginner to elementary) over the course of six months, a slight advantage started to emerge for the high-progress learners. This may be an indication of the beginning of the bilingual advantage, and I think that if those learners had stayed another six months and allowed me to track them from intermediate to upper-intermediate to advanced then the results would have been clearer.


The time window I used was definitely too short. At intermediate level the student is just beginning to be able to use English with some degree of fluency, the struggle to suppress the mother tongue is still very evident and the executive control system in the brain is still very much in training in terms of its role in managing a new language. That being said the data and results are promising and provide an excellent springboard for future research. I hope to refine the parameters of this experiment and repeat it over a longer time window at Everest Language School in the very near future.


Is being bilingual good for your brain?


Yes, absolutely! My final experiment was to investigate the long-term benefits of second language learning. I did this by comparing the cognitive abilities of older adults who were active or passive (they were once bilingual but no longer used both languages regularly) bilinguals and I found a clear cognitive advantage for the active bilinguals. This finding is in line with research emerging from labs all around the world where bilingualism has been found to be a factor that promotes healthy cognitive ageing and helps to combat cognitive decline and the symptoms of age-related disorders such as Alzheimer's and dementia.


Boosting cognitive control may not be any student's primary motivation for learning English as a second language but it is interesting to think and learn about what is happening under the surface as they get to grips with phrasal verbs, the structure of the third conditional and the many other intricacies that are involved in mastering the English language.


Dr Anne-Marie Connolly is Director of Studies at Everest Language School in Ireland