Learning a second language gives your brain a good workout

by Ray Clancy on June 5, 2014

Expats finding it difficult to learn a new language should be buoyed by the fact that being bilingual really does give your brain a beneficial workout.

It is hard to estimate the exact number of bilingual people in the world as there is a lack of reliable statistics, but in 2012, a Eurobarometer survey established that 54% of Europeans are bilingual, and other studies hypothesise that more than half of the world’s population is bilingual.

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Bilingualism has many brain benefits for people of all ages.

According to language teacher and researcher Miguel Angel Munoz, being bilingual isn’t black and white. Giving a lecture at a seminar organised by the British Council, he explained the difference between being bilingual and being proficient in a language.

‘The more proficient you are in a second language, and the more you use it in your daily life, the more bilingual you will be,’ he told the audience.

He explained that being bilingual can also result in people having weaker verbal skills because when you speak in one language, your other language is also activated by the brain, which incurs a processing cost, as the brain needs to do two things at once.

According to one study, this can mean that the verbal skills of bilinguals in each language are generally weaker than those for monolingual speakers of each language.

Bilingual people tend to produce fewer words of any given semantic category than people who only speak one language fluently. In other words, their individual vocabularies in each language tend to be smaller than that of people who only speak one of those languages.

Another study has shown that bilingual people also experience nearly twice as many ‘tip of the tongue’ moments when they can’t find the exact word they want to describe something.

But Munoz said that there are lots of benefits to being bilingual, and they far outweigh the costs mentioned above.

Firstly, bilingualism means that the brain is used to handling two languages at the same time and this develops skills for functions such as inhibition, switching attention, and working memory.

‘These skills make up the brain’s executive control system, which looks after high level thought, multi-tasking, and sustained attention. Because bilingual people are used to switching between their two languages, they are also better at switching between tasks, even if these tasks are nothing to do with language,’ he explained.

Secondly, bilingualism has widespread effects on the functional and structural properties of various cortical and subcortical structures in the brain. Studies have shown that people who are multilingual have higher density of grey matter, and that older people who are bilingual tend to have better maintained white matter in their brains.

But Munoz pointed that this does not necessarily mean you’re smarter if you are bilingual. ‘I don’t know any study that shows a link between bilingualism and such concepts as executive intelligence, emotional intelligence or intelligence quotient,’ he said.

Thirdly, bilingualism promotes cognitive reserve in elderly people. Taking part in stimulating physical or mental activity can help maintain cognitive function, and delay the onset of symptoms in people suffering from dementia. The onset of dementia symptoms is significantly delayed by as much as five years in patients who are bilingual. The brains of bilingual patients with Alzheimer’s disease function cognitively at the same level of monolingual patients who have suffered less brain degeneration.

He also pointed out that scientists also agree there’s not enough research yet into how and why the bilingual experience affects the brain’s processes in the way it does.

‘But we can certainly dispel some myths about being bilingual, such as the outdated and disproven idea that growing up bilingual confuses and hinders cognitive development. On the contrary, being bilingual is a beneficial condition that one is never too old nor too proficient to experience and develop,’ he concluded.

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