Big Brain Benefits For Bilinguals


Learning a new language might not be the easiest thing to do, especially after a certain age, but a new study suggests it may be the smartest way to go. More specifically, bilinguals or those that speak multiple languages seem to process information more efficiently than single-language speakers.

Those of us with only one language to pull from don’t have to work as hard to access the words we’re looking for. Multilinguals on the other hand are constantly tapping into more than one language, comparing words in a split second in order to arrive at the right choice.

Northwestern University's Viorica Marian, the lead author of the research and a professor in the department of communication sciences and disorders in the School of Communication, pioneered the theory of Co-activation during bilingual spoken language. Her preliminary studies beginning in 1999 showed that fluent bilinguals have both languages “active” at the same time. Marian observed that when given a word in one language, the eyes of a bilingual speaker would often dart to an object in the room that had a similar sounding word in the other language.

Her more recent studies build on this theory in an article published in Medical News Today.

…volunteers were asked to perform language comprehension tasks. Upon hearing a word, study participants were shown pictures of four objects. For example, after hearing the word "cloud" they would be shown four pictures, including a picture of a cloud and a picture of a similar-sounding word, such as a "clown." The study participants needed to recognize the correct word and ignore the similar-sounding competing word.”

They found through MRI imaging that there was more activation in the inhibitory control regions of bilingual speaker’s brains, meaning that they had to work doubly hard to complete the task. This is most likely due to the fact that bilinguals are so well practiced at sifting through rivaling words to come up with the correct term.

There are practical implications to these findings. It has been shown, for example, that in many cases bilingual children are more in tune with their surroundings. They also do well with remembering sequences and lists. Evidence also points to the fact that bilinguals often do better at standardized tests, especially when it comes to reading, math and vocabulary. Other studies indicate that speaking multiple languages may help a person be more resistant to conditioning and framing techniques, making them less likely to be swayed by the types of language often used in politics and marketing.

But that’s not all, according to an article in The Atlantic, bilinguals may also be better spenders by,

…viewing “hypothetical” and “real” money (the perceived difference between money on a credit card and money in cold, hard cash) more similarly than monolinguals.”

Perhaps the most exciting evidence is that a bilingual speaker’s ability to focus on the details of language may in fact delay cognitive decline typical of the aging process. This is thought to be because bilinguals are better at maintaining what is referred to as “cognitive reserve.” In other words their brains work more efficiently when utilizing the cerebral networks which enhance brain function during aging. This often allows older bilinguals to enjoy better memories than their monolingual counterparts.

One study of over 200 bilingual and monolingual Alzheimer’s patients showed that on average, bilinguals showed signs of the disease 5 years later than monolinguals.

An article from the DANA Foundation goes on to say that,

In a follow-up study, researchers compared the brains of bilingual and monolingual patients matched on the severity of Alzheimer’s symptoms. Surprisingly, the brains of bilingual people showed a significantly higher degree of physical atrophy in regions commonly associated with Alzheimer’s disease. In other words, the bilingual people had more physical signs of disease than their monolingual counterparts, yet performed on par behaviorally, even though their degree of brain atrophy suggested that their symptoms should be much worse. If the brain is an engine, bilingualism may help to improve its mileage, allowing it to go farther on the same amount of fuel.”

This is great news and one more reason to go ahead and order that Rosetta Stone language course for the new year, (año nuevo, nouvelle année, neujahr, or Shin'nen).


Read all articles by Juniper Briggs



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