08. Neuroscience

Why Bilingual People Have Stronger Brains

July 4, 2017

As cities grow increasingly more diverse due to globalization and immigration, it’s becoming harder to find people who speak just one language. In fact, it’s estimated that at least half of the world’s population speak at least two languages. Some even believe that the estimate is much higher, varying from 60 to 75%.

Speaking more than one language is beneficial for obvious reasons: you can get a leg up in the job market, connect with new people, and travel abroad more easily. But, did you know that being bilingual benefits your brain too? In fact, bilinguals may even have superior brain functions compared to monolinguals.

The Bilingualism Advantage

According to research, bilingual people have enhanced abilities when it comes to filtering out important information among unimportant material. Also known as the “bilingualism advantage,” it stems from their ability to process language. This was observed in a past study where bilingual children were better able to ignore classroom noise and distractions than monolingual children.

Bilingual people are also more efficient at higher-level brain functions such as ignoring other irrelevant information. For instance, people who are bilingual are constantly activating both languages in their brain, choosing which to use and which to ignore. The task of filtering information activates different brain areas in bilinguals versus monolinguals.

Differences in Brain Activity

In a study conducted at the University of Houston, participants were shown a picture of an object, as well as an object with a similar-sounding name, and two unrelated objects. For example, they might hear the word “cloud,” and then see pictures of a cloud, clown and two other things. The participants had to pick up the picture that showed the word they heard.

What is remarkable is that the brain activity was markedly different between the bilinguals and monolinguals, as revealed by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans. The brains of the people who spoke only one language lit up much more, in regions of the brain controlling higher-level functions. Their brains had to work much harder to perform the task.

The results are not too surprising given that bilinguals experience competition between both of their languages while listening to speech on a daily basis. They are mentally stronger because they’ve been working out like this for years.

Enhanced Cognitive Control

Bilingual people are also thought to have superior cognitive control, which is also known as executive control. Cognitive control is our ability to control our thoughts, inhibit automatic responses and influence working memory. It supports flexible and adaptive responses to achieve certain goals. For instance, your exam may be draining, but your cognitive control is what allows you give an extra push to answer all the questions.

Many studies find that it is one of the most important pieces of cognitive function. Some disorders, such as schizophrenia and ADHD, are associated with impairments of executive control. People with good cognitive control are found to be more successful at school, at finding jobs and are healthier. So, want to make your brain more robust? It may be time to consider learning a new language!

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