The benefits of speaking more than one language are known, but new research says that you get those same benefits just by speaking two different dialects. And those don’t have to be the kinds of mysterious dialects studied by far-away linguists. If you speak African American Vernacular English at home, and standard English in school, says University of Cambridge’s Napoleon Katsos, you get the same advantages as if you spoke both Spanish and English.
Despite its importance to linguists, then, the difference between and language and a dialect doesn’t matter to our brains.
Bi-lingual children perform better in tasks that require them to disregard the rules or to ignore irrelevant information. Even the way we experience and think about the world is shaped by the first language we learn as children. Recently a showed that those who write in two different dialects score better on regular school tests like reading and arithmetic. Could dialects really be as effective as languages when boosting our brains?
Katsos and his colleague Kyriakos Antoniou from the Université Libre de Bruxelles tested a group of children, pitting monolingual kids against bi-dialectal and multilingual kids. Participating children were read a series of digits and then told to recall them in reverse order. The test was designed to gauge the ability to hold information in memory and to manipulate it.
Both bilingual and bi-dialectal kids beat the kids who only spoke one language. “Somewhat to our surprise,” writes Katsos in Quartz, “multilingual and bi-dialectal children exhibited an advantage over monolingual children in a composite cognitive processes score based on tests of memory, attention, and cognitive flexibility.”
It seems almost certain now that speaking more languages makes us smarter, and that’s just the cognitive part, before we get to the mind-expanding effects of embracing other cultures. But elevating dialects to the level of a language, in terms of their effect on the brain at least, could have other advantages. Some dialects, especially vernaculars, can be looked down upon. If you spoke anything other than “proper” English in school, your teacher probably scolded you. If dialects are treated as the intellectual equal of languages, then the bad reputation surrounding them could be lifted.
Have something to say about this article? You can email us and let us know. If it’s interesting and thoughtful, we may publish your response.