Benefits of Bilingualism: Northwestern Magazine (2024)

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Benefits of Bilingualism: Northwestern Magazine (1) Benefits of Bilingualism: Northwestern Magazine (2) Benefits of Bilingualism: Northwestern Magazine (3)

Speaking more than one language is good for the brain.

Sprechen Sie Deutsch? Habla Español? Parlez-vous Français?

If you are one of the growing number of people who speak multiple languages, new research from Northwestern needs no translation. Bilingual speakers enjoy cognitive benefits beyond the fulfillment of fluency. Those speakers process competing information more efficiently and more easily than those who know just a single language.

The benefits occur because the bilingual brain is constantly activating both languages and choosing which language to use and which language to ignore, says Viorica Marian, professor of communication sciences and disorders in the School of Communication. When the brain is constantly exercised in this way, it becomes better at selecting relevant information and ignoring competing distractions, the researchers found.

“You constantly juggle two languages. As a result, you become a really good mental juggler,” says Marian.

She has studied co-activation, a concept she pioneered in 1999, since her days as a graduate student at Cornell University. Her earlier research showed that bilinguals never turn off their inactive language. “It’s always running in the background to some extent — it’s always co-activated,” she says. “As you hear words in either language, they get processed in both languages.”

Her latest study explores co-activation and inhibitory control in bilinguals. Inhibitory control involves selecting the correct word in the face of other competing words. In one of the first such studies to use functional magnetic resonance imaging, Marian and her colleagues measured blood flow in the brain as study participants completed a language comprehension test. The more oxygen or blood flow to the region, the harder that part of the brain is working.

Upon hearing a word, study participants were shown pictures of four objects. For example, after hearing the word “cloud,” they were shown four pictures, including a picture of a cloud and a picture of a similar-sounding word, such as a “clown.”

The bilingual speakers were better at filtering out the competing words because their brains are used to controlling two languages and inhibiting the irrelevant words, the researchers found. “The interesting thing,” Marian says, “is that the parts of the brain that are involved in language and resolving competition had to work harder in monolinguals than in bilinguals.”

Inhibitory control offers real-world advantages, Marian notes. In a study that she co-authored last year, researchers found that bilingual students are better able to filter out classroom noise than their monolingual peers.

That’s one of the many advantages of bilingualism, which appears to have benefits along the entire lifespan. Some researchers point to adaptability in babies who have been exposed to two languages from birth. In older adults, researchers report that bilingualism might delay a diagnosis of dementia. That makes sense, Marian says, because “using another language provides the brain built-in exercise.”

And, she adds, it’s never too late to learn. “You can always learn another language. And you can learn it to fluency. You can reap this inhibitory control benefit no matter what age you start.”

Marian, who grew up speaking Romanian and Russian in her native Moldova, has spent her career debunking myths about bilingualism, which she says has long suffered from an unfounded negative bias in the United States.

“People would often be told not to speak another language to their kids because it would confuse them,” says Marian, recalling advice she received from a nurse in her pediatrician’s office when her eldest daughter was a baby. (She regretfully admits that her own three daughters are Americanized monolinguals. “You know how they say that the cobbler’s kids go barefoot,” she quips.)

Today approximately 20 percent of U.S. households speak a language other than English at home. Outside of the United States, the majority of the world’s population is bilingual or multilingual.

That makes it all the more important to Marian to develop an accurate understanding of how the cognitive system functions when you know more than one language.

Want to see how you fare on a test of inhibitory control? Take a Stroop effect test.

Benefits of Bilingualism: Northwestern Magazine (2024)


Benefits of Bilingualism: Northwestern Magazine? ›

Knowing multiple languages enables people to make connections between things in ways that others do not see and results in higher scores on creativity and divergent-thinking tasks.

What are the benefits of bilingualism? ›

Bilingualism strengthens cognitive abilities - bilingual people tend to be more creative and flexible. They can be more open-minded, and they also find it easier to focus on a variety of tasks simultaneously.

What are the benefits of bilingual communication? ›

Bilingual and multilingual people have been shown to be better communicators. Bilingual brains are used to understanding ideas and values in more than one language. With this in mind, it's no surprise that studies have shown bilingual students are not only better learners but also more effective communicators.

Why is being bilingual good for your brain? ›

In recent years, scientists have begun to explore what's going on in the brains of people who are bilingual or multilingual, and they found evidence that speaking multiple languages may have cognitive benefits that include improving people's executive function abilities and slowing down the progression of age-related ...

Is being bilingual impressive? ›

Therefore, bilingual or multilingual individuals tend to excel more in specific executive functions, such as problem-solving and decision-making, than individuals who know one language. Another cognitive benefit of being bilingual is that—compared to monolingual students—it improves a person's ability to multitask!

What are the advantages and disadvantages of bilingualism? ›

It also opens up new cultural and social experiences, and can enhance career opportunities in a globalized world. However, bilingualism can also lead to language confusion, delayed language development, learning difficulties, reduced cognitive development, and social and emotional difficulties.

What are the cognitive advantages of bilingualism? ›

Bilingual people enjoy advantages: they have enriched cognitive control, it's likely that they have improved metalinguistic awareness, as well as better memory, visual-spatial skills and even creativity.

How does bilingualism improve social skills? ›

"The advantages of bilingualism in children's social-cognitive development likely stem from a greater communicative flexibility that the children has acquired in order to interact socially with people from different language and cultural backgrounds," Assoc Prof Yow explained.

What are the benefits of bilingualism treating language as a strength? ›

Being bilingual means that there are more job opportunities depending on which languages you speak. An amazing benefit of being bilingual is that you can learn additional languages more easily that monolinguals. This is because language skills reinforce each other.

Are bilingual people more successful? ›

Yes! People who speak more than one language earn 5% to 20% more on average than those who don't.

How valuable is being bilingual? ›

With less than 20% of Americans speaking another language, being bilingual gives you a serious advantage on the job market. Studies have shown that on average, bilingual employees can earn between 5-10% more per hour than their monolingual peers, and that can certainly add up over a lifetime.

Is it true that bilingual people are smarter? ›

Researchers theorize that bilingual people can outperform monolinguals in tasks due to their extensive brain exercise. Paul Denlinger, a multilingual, explains that learning two languages lets students break internal conflicts by 70% and see the accurate picture.

Do bilinguals think in their native language? ›

This interference may cause bilinguals who are thinking in their non-native language to engage in more deliberate cognitive processing, rather than the automated, intuitive processing that usually occurs when thinking in one's native language.

Are bilinguals above average IQ? ›

This is the VOA Special English Health Report. In the early nineteen fifties, researchers found that people scored lower on intelligence tests if they spoke more than one language. Research in the sixties found the opposite. Bilingual people scored higher than monolinguals, people who speak only one language.

Are bilingual people better at math? ›

Language learning trains the brain. Learning two languages at an early age develops language skills in general. But bilingual kids also do better in other cognitive subjects – like mathematics.

Do colleges like if you are bilingual? ›

While most universities do not require students to be proficient in a second language, having those skills can prove to be an advantage for your applications.

What are the advantages of bilingual method? ›

Advantages of The Bilingual Method

According to this method, acquisition of the mother tongue is very important for the language learning process. When the mother tongue is firmly established in the minds of the students, by the age of 7 or 8, it becomes easy to learn difficult words and grammar.

What are the main points of bilingualism? ›

Common bilingualism features

Bilingual people most commonly belong to two different cultures or have roots in two different nationalities. Bilingual people may use their different languages in different aspects of their lives (for example, an individual might speak English at school or work but Spanish at home).

What is the bilingual advantage effect? ›

There is evidence suggesting that bilinguals have better controlled processing and are more efficient at certain cognitive functions. Such findings have led to the hypothesis that there is a bilingual advantage (BA) for various cognitive tasks6, 4.


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