This is Your Brain on Language: The Benefits of Being Bilingual

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Think back to your eighth grade French class. How many days did you sit there reciting irregular verb conjugations and wondering why you had to learn another language?

Whether under the pretense of better global communication, increased business acumen or cultural study, foreign languages are considered a must-have in today’s educational universe. Despite this, a 2012 report states that over 50% of Europeans are bilingual, meaning that they are proficient enough to communicate in a second language, versus less than 20% of Americans.

Bilingual people are often perceived to be smarter, more interesting and even more attractive than the average monoglot. Recent studies have also discovered that speaking more than one language has health and brain benefits you weren’t even aware of.

Focused Cognitive Processing

Bilinguals are constantly flipping the on/off switches of the language center in their brains. One language is set at ‘off’ when the other is set at ‘on’. Depending on the situation they’re in, a polyglot’s brain will control which language system is which. This constant monitoring by the brain is a kind of perpetual cognitive exercise.

A bilingual brain getting a steady workout (called inhibitory control) means that the brain doesn’t have to work as hard to perform other cognitive tasks. Inhibitory control is crucial to a brain’s work in everyday life. Bilinguals often have a much easier time focusing on the tasks everyone does — like ignoring background noise, driving or finding your name on a list.

This ability to effectively monitor surroundings may be one of the most crucial differentiating factors between the brain of a polyglot and a monoglot.

Better Decision-Making

Decisions occur in all aspects of life. People who speak more than one language may be better able to make informed decisions. When problems were presented to bilinguals in a language that was not their first, they were much more likely to be logical in their decisions.

People often make decisions based on their emotions. Voting for a presidential candidate who we feel we can relate to, for example, or buying a brand of cereal because its advertising tugs on our heartstrings. The theory behind polyglots making better decisions is that when a multilingual hears something in a language that isn’t their native tongue, they aren’t emotionally affected by the words that a native speaker would be. Psychologically, multilinguals have to take an extra step to making the choice, increasing the logic of their decisions, and reducing decision bias.

Growing up Bilingual

What are the effects of bilingualism in children? Certain schools of thought once held that learning a second language at a young age would lead to confusion, low vocabulary and even a delay in learning all language.

Recent studies have proven that this is not the case. In fact, bilingual children may have several advantages over monolingual children, including their ability to focus and to base their actions or decisions on their current situation.

One study on childhood development of working memory holds that children brought up as bilingual have stronger working memories than monolingual children. Exposure to learning a second language prepares children thrive within the 21st century’s global society. But in the U.S., just 15% of public elementary schools offer foreign language programs.

These programs not only improve student success in school through enhanced reading and critical thinking skills and higher standardized test scores, but leads to more opportunity and even a higher salary by a lifetime average of 2%.

Depending on the language you learn, it can lead to different financial incomes and bonuses and savings over a lifetime. Imagine an extra $128,000 for knowing German!



Lifetime Effects and Benefits

When it comes to cognitive decline, being multilingual can delay the onset of neurological diseases, like Alzheimer’s, by more than four years.

“Their ability to focus in on the details of language” is what slows cognitive decline in multilinguals, says Dr. Thomas Bak at the University of Edinburgh. “Just having the basics of those linguistic connections can delay dementia.”

You don’t have to have been bilingual since childhood to reap the benefits of studying a second language. Picking up a foreign language as an adult will still give your cognitive processes a workout, improve your attention and memory, and improve the overall health of your brain. So dust off those eighth grade French books and start studying!

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