Benefits of your Bilingual Mind

The way language wires and benefits your brain

Recent scientific studies have shown that, for bilingual people, both languages are permanently “awake”, working, classifying and interpreting linguistic signals. The idea of activating only one language at the time has long disappeared and a new conception of languages working hand in hand has now been imposed.

Let’s take a particular example: imagine that you hear the word “book”, in that case your brain may easily select words like “boot” or “boom.” How could this be possible? Well, research has shown that we don’t recognise words all at once, we rather recognise words one part at the time in a sequential fashion. Just like eating a chocolate bar; we may at first taste the sweet chocolate and as we progress, we may find almonds in the way, but we don’t wait until we have finished eating the chocolate bar to make a judgement or a prediction about it, that would simply take too long. In a similar way our brain is “guessing” the word by activating lexical items stored in our memory which may match the linguistic input.

Now here’s the importance for bilingual language users: since two or more languages are active at the same time, our brain will search for matching words regardless of the language to which those words belong.

But, how is this feature of languages working in a parallel way beneficial for bilinguals?

Stroop task. Try to say colour ignoring the word.
Stroop task. Try to say colour ignoring the word.

The first benefit is related to managing, classifying and categorizing information. Have you ever heard of the Stroop task? You have an example of it in the GIF you’re seeing right now. You are basically required to name the colour of the word’s font, ignoring the actual word. The response time is usually much more elevated in cases when the word font and the word meaning are in conflict since the brain needs to use much more resources to come up with the right answer. Well, if you’re a bilingual speaker, you may have not found much trouble performing this exercise as required. Bilingual people perform this task much more easily than monolingual people because of a skill called inhibitory control, which allows them to focus on relevant information, instead of being distracted by competing information

This is especially connected to multitasking and task switching. In tests in which bilinguals are required to classify objects by colour and then classify them according to their shape, they are able to perform this task faster and more efficiently than monolinguals.

Brain Activation

Have you ever heard of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI)? If you have ever watched Dr House, you might have noticed that in cases in which doctors need to obtain information related to brain function they do so by analysing pictures of marked zones in the brain.

Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging

This technique is used to measure brain activity by detecting blood oxygenation and blood flow in the brain. This is because when a certain area of the brain is activated, it needs more blood to supply the increased demand of oxygen. These images can also be used to track maps of particular mental processes.

Recent studies have suggested that one of the advantages of being bilingual is that other brain areas apart from those related to language are actually activated. So, which regions are active when bilingual people are required to carry out certain tasks involving both languages?

Dosolateral prefrontal cortex: a brain region associated with attention and inhibition.

Left inferior frontal gyrus: language production centre of the brain.

Anterior cingulate cortex: involved in rational cognitive functions such as decision-making, empathy, emotions, impulse control and reward anticipation.

Bilateral supermarginal gyrus: involved in space perception, tactile sensory data and limbs location. It also plays an important role in recognising postures and gestures of other people.

Apart from these examples of brain activation, bilingualism plays an important role in shaping and structuring the brain. There is an overwhelming amount of evidence that shows that second language acquisition and proficiency in that language has a correlation with higher of gray matter

volume in the left inferior parietal cortex. In fact, individuals who suffered some kind of injury or damage in this region have been found to be unable to control language switching.

Learning

It has already been mentioned that bilingual people have a number of advantages related to sensory perception related to language coordination. For this reason, bilinguals have a clear advantage in a learning environment and have improved skills relation to attention to detail. In fact, this could work as an explanation to why bilingual adults are better at learning a second language than monolinguals at learning a second language. Bilinguals are able to inhibit information from their mother tongues, thus focusing specifically on new linguistic input, while monolinguals have several problems related to their mother tongues interfering in the learning process.

So, if you’re already bilingual, you should consider learning a third language to exploit all your linguistic abilities and benefits. And if you’re monolingual or you have a beginner or intermediate knowledge in a second language, you should seriously start thinking in taking up some classes to boost all your potential.

As a consequence of their learning advantage, bilinguals have a larger vocabulary acquisition, learn and use new words at a faster pace and have an overall more pronounce learning curve than their monolingual classmates.

learn

The best part is that you don’t need to be an adult to enjoy the benefits of bilingualism, even babies and children are favoured from learning a second language. In a recent study, researchers found that babies as young as seven months growing in bilingual homes had an advantage when they had to learn a new rule or adapt to a new experience. The experiment consisted in teaching babies that a puppet would appear in the left corner of a screen when they heard a tinkling sound. They were rewarded based on their ability to predict where would the puppet appear. At some point during the experiment, researchers changed the place were the puppet appeared, thus babies had to learn and apply the new rule. The curious thing is only bilingual babies were able to learn the new rule.

Bilingualism also plays a role in protecting the brain against natural decline

As we grow older our tissues deteriorate. There are a number of brain diseases related to ageing such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson, and brain damage leading to dementia. It is a well known fact that brain shrinks with age, its shape changes and its neuronal connections are affected.

Luckily for language learners, the acquisition of a second language has been shown to prevent such catastrophic outcomes. Bilingualism seems to contribute to what scientists call “cognitive reserve,” the way we optimise brain resources to improve our brain function even if we age. Bilingualism contributes to this cognitive reserve by compensation damaged brain networks and finding ways to keep brain mechanisms oiled and working. Bilingualism helps to keep memory systems healthy, delay brain diseases for several years, and fence off senility.

Sources & Bibliography

Cognitive advantage in children enrolled in a second-language immersion elementary school program for three years

ANNE-CATHERINE NICOLAY and MARTINE PONCELET July 2013
Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, ,Volume16, Issue03, July 2013, pp 597-607
http://journals.cambridge.org/abstract_S1366728912000375

Bilingual and monolingual processing of competing lexical items

VIORICA MARIAN and MICHAEL SPIVEY June 2003
Applied Psycholinguistics, ,Volume24, Issue02, June 2003, pp 173-193
http://journals.cambridge.org/abstract_S0142716403000092

Competing activation in bilingual language processing: Within- and between-language competition

VIORICA MARIAN and MICHAEL SPIVEY August 2003
Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, ,Volume6, Issue02, August 2003, pp 97-115
http://journals.cambridge.org/abstract_S1366728903001068

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