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How Being Bilingual Affects Your Brain

bilingual brain
Being bilingual or multilingual has many positive effects on the human brain, researchers have found. Credit: Beatrice Murch/Wikimedia Commons/ CC BY-SA 3.0

Being bilingual or multilingual has been proven to have countless beneficial impacts on the brains of those who speak more than one language.

According to recent data, most of the world’s population, or 43 percent, are bilingual, 40 percent are monolingual, and the rest are multilingual.

Studies have shown that being bilingual comes with many more advantages other than simply having the ability to communicate in multiple languages.

In fact, bilingual children are better at multitasking and can focus more easily than their monolingual counterparts.

While it is clear that those who speak multiple languages have certain linguistic advantages over those who do not, research has shown that they may have other cognitive advantages, as well.

Speaking more than one language helps memory, attention

Psychologist and professor Ellen Bialystock of York University, who focuses on bilingualism and language acquisition, conducted studies which indicate that those who are bilingual successfully completed cognitive and psychological tasks more quickly than monolingual participants.

The tasks were constructed to test their attention span, memory, and ability to shift between one task and another successfully.

There also seems to be an advantage to maintaining a high level in both languages rather than having a preference for one, as it forces the brain to remain active during communication in both languages as they “compete” for dominance with each other in the mind.

Seamlessly switching from one language to another, called “code switching,” may also help bilingual people juggle multiple complex tasks at once and keep their brains active.

It can also help them express things in one language that may be absent in the other. Many bilingual people have likely told others about a word in one language that simply cannot be translated into another. Bilinguals, when talking to other people who speak the same languages, often speak in a mix of both tongues to better express themselves.

Being bilingual helps maintain brain structure, prevents cognitive decline

Studies have shown that speaking more than one language may actually slow cognitive decline as bilingual and multilingual people grow older.

As people age, the amount of white matter in the brain naturally begins to decline. However, scientists have shown through diffusion tensor imaging, which shows the quality and location of white matter in the brain, that older bilingual people had more and higher quality white matter than monolingual people of the same age.

This shows that speaking more than one language may inhibit cognitive decline and help preserve the brain’s white matter. Studies have shown that bilingualism may also reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

Dr. Nina Kraus, Professor at Northwestern University, analyzed the brain activity of bilingual people to study the areas of their brains that process complex sounds.

Dr. Kraus found that, much like accomplished musicians, bilinguals were able to pick out and focus on an isolated sound after it was first played to them by itself and then when it was played along with distracting background noise while monolingual people were not.

Furthermore, bilingual people were shown to have a greater ability to “pick out” important sounds when tasked with clicking a mouse every time they heard a specific word during a jumbled recording than those who speak only one language.

This indicates that those who speak multiple languages can pay attention to selected, relevant sounds while disregarding others, filtering out what is necessary.

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