Bilingualism sharpens your brain

Tiny Luxembourg can hardly be seen on a world map, yet illustrates perfectly the world today with more people speaking two or more languages than one. Expats arriving in Luxembourg quickly discover how well they can get by in English, French or German, and they marvel at how easily Luxembourgers switch between three or four languages and how they will actually ask you what language you prefer that they speak.

It is obvious that speaking several languages is an advantage in itself, professionally, culturally and socially, and the Luxembourg example shows us how cross-cultural communication is made easier. Recently CLEW talked about how babies adapt to a bilingual environment before they can speak. What other advantages can bilingualism or multilingualism lead to later in life? Viorica Marian and Anthony Shook of Northwestern University, USA explore this topic in an article published in the neuroscience publication Dana.

The languages we speak are constantly and simultaneously active, and the brain uses control mechanisms to keep a certain balance and to quickly and naturally change between languages. Researchers believe this strengthens cognitive control in general, which takes place in the same brain region, such as singling out relevant information, switching quickly between two tasks and managing conflict. It also seems bilingualism improves our attention span and sensory processes such as distinguishing sounds. Added up this might make bilinguals or multilinguals more detail oriented and better at processing the flow of information surrounding us, which constitutes an advantage for example in a learning situation.

As we get older

It appears the cognitive advantages are lasting ones, as bilingual seniors are able to keep cognitive mechanisms such as memory sharper and slow down the natural decline. A study recently published in the Journal of Neuroscience demonstrates that seniors who have been speaking two languages since they were little can switch tasks faster than those who have been speaking only one. In a study of Alzheimer’s disease, bilingual patients showed symptoms five years later than monolingual patients.  Multilingualism seems to protect your brain by enhancing its complex pathways.

That doesn’t exclude a certain degree of confusion though, whether young or old. You know how when you speak several languages and are looking for a specific word, you never quite know which language the word will pop up in? And the tip-of-the-tongue thing, or not remembering a word but being sure it starts with an R? This will often be due to the fact that the different languages we speak are active simultaneously in our brain.

If we spoke a different language, we would perceive a somewhat different world. – Ludwig Wittgenstein

By Unni Holtedahl, February 2013

Read more about what affects our capacity to multitask here.