Review: The Bilingual Brain by Albert Costa

The Bilingual Brain: And What It Tells Us About the Science of Language [2017/21] – ★★★1/2

Albert Costa was a Research Professor at Pompeu Fabra University (UPF) in Barcelona, and in this short book, which was translated from the Spanish by John W. Schwieter, he explores bilingualism, the mysteries surrounding a human brain that is used “to juggle” two languages daily. “How do two languages coexist in the same brain?…What are the implications of this coexistence? and “is there anything special about being bilingual?” [2017/2021: ix], asks Professor Costa. Referring to many studies and evidence from neuro-imaging techniques, the author meditates on such topics as (i) how bilingual babies acquire languages, (ii) why some people with brain injuries lose their language abilities, (iii) what effect a second language may have on a dominant one, and (iv) how the choice of a language affects human judgement. Instead of providing convincing or concrete arguments, the book rather emphasises the awesomeness of bilinguals and the fact that many questions are still open to debate in this field. However, where Professor Costa’s essay lacks in rigour and depth, it certainly makes up in piquing curiosity and stimulating conversation.

  • Acquisition/Experience with Babies

In his book, Professor Costa is fascinated by “the challenges that babies face during language learning, in particular when it involves the simultaneous acquisition of two languages” [Costa/Schwieter, 2017/2021: 3]. Some surprising conclusions emerge, such as that studies show that “babies are able to discriminate between languages that sound quite different, as soon as hours after birth” (my emphasis), and “bilingual babies are able to differentiate their two languages from other languages” [2017/2021: 11, 14].“For their first six months, babies are relatively good at detecting patterns of sounds that frequently appear in a speech signal” [2017/2021: 21], writes the author. Not surprisingly, passage of time matters and the age of acquisition is very important. Later in the book, Professor Costa talks about bilingual children developing the ability to emphasise with others sooner than the control group [2017/2021: 86], and says that “acquiring a second language does not seem to have devastating effects on the use of the first one, unless (as in the case of adopted children), it (the first language) is no longer used” [2017/2021: 67].

  • Language-Learning Implications

I thought the book offered invaluable insights about the process of learning a language, especially for the young. Professor Costa writes: results suggest that the “social communicative interaction is fundamental to the learning of a foreign language, and that mere exposure does not seem to lead to such learning” [Costa/Schwieter, 2017/2021: 26]. In other words, “social interaction is fundamental for language acquisition” [Costa/Schwieter, 2017/2021: 25]. The book further states that “aging does not seem to affect learning new lexical items (basic vocabulary) too much”, and that “learning modifies the brain[Costa/Schwieter, 2017/2021: 91]. “Activities that we carry out daily have an effect on brain structure. Our behaviour and learning sculpt the brain” [ibid]. “Learning and using two languages seems to have not only functional consequences, but also implications from brain structure”; “density of grey and white matter can be altered by learning a new skill”. For the effective learning of a new language, Professor Costa suggests practising that language frequently, rather than thinking about competence.

  • Evidence From Brain-Imaging Techniques

The book provides plenty of evidence from neuro-imagining techniques, with Professor stating that “there are more (brain) areas involved in processing a second language compared to the first. It appears that the dominant language requires fewer neuronal resources for processing” [2017/2021: 48]. The obvious explanation for this is that the brain has to work harder on something that is not automatic and probably never will be. This leads to a conclusion that “bilingual speakers require a certain overexertion during speech production compared to monolinguals” [2017/2021: 89].

Professor Costa provides many studies as examples, but only to say later that these studies’ results are not “final” and there is still much confusion about the causal relationship involved. One study clearly showed that “access to the lexicon is less efficient for bilingual speakers” when they took more time to choose the correct image or word in one experiment than their monolingual counterparts. However, I also thought that this could also be because bilinguals may be used to pausing momentarily before answering since they are never sure of what language will be required. That automatic pausing, developed since early childhood and even if lasting fractions of a second, may account for their supposedly “slower reaction” and that does not necessarily mean that “their access to the lexicon itself is less efficient”.

  • Supposed Benefits Conferred by Bilingualism & How Foreign Language Affects Human Judgement

There are different beneficial effects of bilingualism reported, and one study quoted in the book demonstrates that bilingualism is capable of delaying “the onset of symptoms of dementia by about four years” [Costa/Schwieter, 2017/2021: 117]. The final chapters of the essay are dedicated to the topic of how the choice of a language affects human judgement and principles. For example, allegedly, an instruction given in a foreign language leads to a more rational and logical answer on the part of a recipient. On the other hand, if that instruction is formulated in a native language, the response tends to be more emotive and less logical. Professor Costa gives all sorts of explanations for this state of affairs, but does not mention one of the most obvious ones – a foreign language is often learnt in an academic, formal setting, where the learning is removed from emotive states like family, close friends and country of origin. This may also trigger the psychological association of a foreign language with more formal and less emotive aspects.

Despite the book’s good intentions, it does refer to strange arguments and cherry-picks its studies. Some examples are also a bit inappropriate, such as the rumour about Fernando Alonso or the references to The Godfather Part II. Albert Costa seems to be yet another author who resorts to The Godfather to keep our attention when they are so many real (and famous) bilingual people out there who would have been delighted to share their bilingual experience with everyone. It is also odd that the author does not mention trilingualism or quadrilingual people whose numbers are not as rare nowadays as they once were. The situation is undoubtedly much more interesting and complex with regards to the study of people who can speak more than two languages.

The Bilingual Brain can be described as a short essay from an expert in the field which packs interesting information. However, it also frustrates often and its conclusion of bilinguals being amazing people does not move us an inch closer to uncovering the mystery for which we picked up the book in the first place.


10 thoughts on “Review: The Bilingual Brain by Albert Costa

  1. Fascinating post! I grew up trilingual which was not uncommon in the country I lived and I have always had a penchant for learning languages. So I am intrigued by the process of learning a language. Will check out the book.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. What a shame that you found it didn’t give the answers you thought they would. When I first saw your link I thought, this might be the book for me but it sounds as if he doesn’t tell us more than I already know. I mean, we know that it works somehow but how? And why?

    But thanks a lot for that review. It is quite interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comment. And, yes, since Costa was a Research Professor, I guess I expected much more rigour there and the exploration of interesting theories (it is clear that no one can provide concrete answers), but definitely not a page on how the characters in The Godfather were also bilingual and rather confusing conclusions on a few studies that he does mention.


      1. That’s what I would have thought, as well. I mean, I can mention a lot of people that are bilingual, famous one and people I know personally. I often can tell you how they acquired their bilingualism and what I think is helpful and what isn’t but if he hasn’t written more than that, I don’t need it. LOL

        Liked by 1 person

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