How Being Bilingual Helps Your Brain (Even If You Learn a New Language in Adulthood)

There was a time in Amer­i­ca, not so very long ago, when con­ven­tion­al wis­dom dis­cour­aged immi­grants from speak­ing the lan­guage of the old coun­try at home. In fact, “it used to be thought that being bilin­gual was a bad thing, that it would con­fuse or hold peo­ple back, espe­cial­ly chil­dren. Turns out we could­n’t have been more wrong.” These words are spo­ken by one of the vari­ety of mul­ti­lin­gual nar­ra­tors of the recent BBC Ideas video above, which explains “why being bilin­gual is good for your brain” — not just if you pick up a sec­ond lan­guage in child­hood, but also, and dif­fer­ent­ly, if you delib­er­ate­ly study it as an adult.

“Learn­ing a new lan­guage is an exer­cise of the mind,” says Li Wei of the Insti­tute of Edu­ca­tion at Uni­ver­si­ty Col­lege Lon­don. “It’s the men­tal equiv­a­lent of going to a gym every day.” In the bilin­gual brain, “all our lan­guages are active, all at the same time.” (This we hear simul­ta­ne­ous­ly in Eng­lish and the pro­fes­sor’s native Man­darin.) “The con­tin­u­al effort of sup­press­ing a lan­guage when speak­ing anoth­er, along with the men­tal chal­lenge that comes with reg­u­lar­ly switch­ing between lan­guages, exer­cis­es our brain. It improves our con­cen­tra­tion, prob­lem-solv­ing, mem­o­ry, and in turn, our cre­ativ­i­ty.”

In this cen­tu­ry, some of the key dis­cov­er­ies about the ben­e­fits of bilin­gual­ism owe to the research of York Uni­ver­si­ty cog­ni­tive sci­en­tist Ellen Bia­lystok and her col­lab­o­ra­tors. Speak­ing a for­eign lan­guage, she explains in this Guardian inter­view, requires using the brain’s “exec­u­tive con­trol sys­tem, whose job it is to resolve com­pe­ti­tion and focus atten­tion. If you’re bilin­gual, you are using this sys­tem all the time, and that enhances and for­ti­fies it.” In one study, she and her team found that bilin­guals with advanced Alzheimer’s could func­tion at the same cog­ni­tive lev­els with milder degrees of the same con­di­tion. “That’s the advan­tage: they could cope with the dis­ease bet­ter.”

Mas­ter­ing a for­eign lan­guage is, of course, an aspi­ra­tion com­mon­ly held but sel­dom real­ized. Based on per­son­al expe­ri­ence, I can say that noth­ing does the trick quite like mov­ing to a for­eign coun­try. But even if you’d rather not pull up stakes, you can ben­e­fit from the fact that the inter­net now pro­vides the great­est, most acces­si­ble abun­dance of lan­guage-learn­ing resources and tools human­i­ty has ever known — an abun­dance you can start explor­ing right here at Open Cul­ture. If it feels over­whelm­ing to choose just one for­eign lan­guage from this world of pos­si­bil­i­ties, feel free to use my sys­tem: study sev­en of them, one for each day of the week. Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s Tues­day, which means I’ve got some français à appren­dre.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Learn 48 Lan­guages Online for Free: Span­ish, Chi­nese, Eng­lish & More

Becom­ing Bilin­gual Can Give Your Brain a Boost: What Recent Research Has to Say

A Map Show­ing How Much Time It Takes to Learn For­eign Lan­guages: From Eas­i­est to Hard­est

Why You Have an Accent When You Speak a For­eign Lan­guage

What Are the Most Effec­tive Strate­gies for Learn­ing a For­eign Lan­guage?: Six TED Talks Pro­vide the Answers

Meet the Hyper­poly­glots, the Peo­ple Who Can Mys­te­ri­ous­ly Speak Up to 32 Dif­fer­ent Lan­guages

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Blobishly says:

    I found inter­est­ing the bit about using the sec­ond lan­guage more ratio­nal­ly. I indeed have a more emo­tion­al con­nec­tion with the hebrew lan­guage, but i always thought it had to do with the sig­nif­i­cance i believe it has, but per­haps this phe­nom­e­non ampli­fies this dif­fer­ence.

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