WORLD AFFAIRS.  I’ve often remarked on the jaw-dropping stupidity of the Party of Regions currently misruling Ukraine. Whatever they do, they do badly. It’s not just that they’re extremists and thugs; it’s that they’re dumb extremists and cloddish thugs. Smart extremists wishing to destroy Ukrainian identity would never have appointed the widely reviled Dmytro Tabachnyk minister of education. They’d have done it on the sly. Smart thugs who want to destroy the opposition would never have beaten up Yulia Tymoshenko in jail. They’d have arranged for an accident on some country road. Smart crooks would never flaunt the money they’ve stolen. They’d dress like regular folk. Smart supremacists wishing to extirpate the Ukrainian language wouldn’t pass a law that will provoke a patriotic backlash. They’d just discriminate on the sly.

Why are the Regionnaires so dumb? Is it their provincial upbringing amid the smokestacks of the Donbas? Does it come from their Soviet educations? From inhaling too much polluted air? From drinking too much hooch? From getting punched in the nose a few times too many?

Well, I finally have the answer—from none other than the New York Times. In an article titled “Why Bilinguals Are Smarter,” Times science writer Yudhijit Bhattacharjee notes the following:

Speaking two languages rather than just one has obvious practical benefits in an increasingly globalized world. But in recent years, scientists have begun to show that the advantages of bilingualism are even more fundamental than being able to converse with a wider range of people. Being bilingual, it turns out, makes you smarter. It can have a profound effect on your brain, improving cognitive skills not related to language and even shielding against dementia in old age.

Sonofagun! Makes perfect sense to me. The Regionnaires are known for their unwillingness and inability to speak Ukrainian. Indeed, they’re proud of their single-minded dedication to Russian. Little do they know that the result of monolingualism is cerebral flabbiness. Here’s Bhattacharjee:

There is ample evidence that in a bilingual’s brain both language systems are active even when he is using only one language, thus creating situations in which one system obstructs the other. But this interference, researchers are finding out, isn’t so much a handicap as a blessing in disguise. It forces the brain to resolve internal conflict, giving the mind a workout that strengthens its cognitive muscles. … the bilingual experience improves the brain’s so-called executive function—a command system that directs the attention processes that we use for planning, solving problems and performing various other mentally demanding tasks. These processes include ignoring distractions to stay focused, switching attention willfully from one thing to another and holding information in mind—like remembering a sequence of directions while driving.

Did you ever watch Viktor Yanukovych struggle to speak Ukrainian? Heck, you can almost hear them synapses firing as he searches for words, tries to stay focused, switches attention willfully from one thing to another, and is visibly getting smarter. Here’s Bhattacharjee again:

Why does the tussle between two simultaneously active language systems improve these aspects of cognition? Until recently, researchers thought the bilingual advantage stemmed primarily from an ability for inhibition that was honed by the exercise of suppressing one language system: this suppression, it was thought, would help train the bilingual mind to ignore distractions in other contexts. But that explanation increasingly appears to be inadequate, since studies have shown that bilinguals perform better than monolinguals even at tasks that do not require inhibition, like threading a line through an ascending series of numbers scattered randomly on a page.

Have you ever wondered why Regionnaires never thread lines through ascending series of numbers while they doodle in Parliament? Now you know. They couldn’t pull it off and they’d probably lose their tempers, break their pencils, and—heaven forbid—press the wrong button and vote for the opposition.

One final Bhattacharjee quote:

The key difference between bilinguals and monolinguals may be more basic: a heightened ability to monitor the environment. “Bilinguals have to switch languages quite often—you may talk to your father in one language and to your mother in another language,” says Albert Costa, a researcher at the University of Pompeu Fabra in Spain. “It requires keeping track of changes around you in the same way that we monitor our surroundings when driving.” In a study comparing German-Italian bilinguals with Italian monolinguals on monitoring tasks, Mr. Costa and his colleagues found that the bilingual subjects not only performed better, but they also did so with less activity in parts of the brain involved in monitoring, indicating that they were more efficient at it.

In other words, bilingualism is good for you. It’s not just right and reasonable and liberal in a country such as Ukraine, but it’ll make the country a better place to live. Sounds like a no-brainer to anyone who is smart or wants to be smart.

Who but a monolingual Regionnaire could have a problem with that? 

Alexander J. Motyl's blog

Ukrayinska Dumka


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