Today, more than half the world’s population speaks more than one language. That might sound surprising for Westerners, who often don’t speak a language in addition to their own. And the benefits of speaking more than one language are also much more far-reaching than you might imagine. Though it has always been a much-debated topic, there are now hundreds of studies which show that the bilingual brain functions differently from the monolingual brain. And many researchers claim that speaking more than one language actually improves cognitive brain function. But how?
Here are 5 ways being bilingual improves brain function:
(but there are many more!)
1.A true fountain of youth! Research has found that being bilingual, while it won’t prevent the diseases from occuring, actually delays dementia and alzheimers symptoms by about 5 years. How can this be possible? Well it turns out that bilinguals’ brains actually function better at every age. One researcher, Ellen Bialystok, says that it’s the act of switching between the languages regularly that stimulates the brain and builds up a “cognitive reserve”—like setting a bit of brain power aside for later. This allows elderly patients offset effects for a few more years, and also to deal with dementia and alzheimers better when it does appear.
2. It makes you a nicer person. In his article about the joys of being lingual, Tobias Jones points to16th Century emporer Charles V, who famously said, “I speak Spanish to God, French to men, Italian to women and German to my horse.” This is a brilliant example of what linguists refer to as “code-switching”—when you adjust your language according to the person you are speaking with. Doing so forces us to see things from another perspective and be more empathetic. One scientist in the 60s, Susan Ervin-Tripp, concluded from her research that different languages come with different mindsets for the speaker. In other words, the way you think and react depends on the language, due to the words and expressions that you are confined to using. In fact, many bilinguals say they feel like a different person when speaking different languages. This can allow for a wider worldview, being able to see different points of view in different cultures.
3. It improves memory. In the same article by Jones, he describes research which found that bilingualism resulted in “enhanced attentional control” which means people have better concentration and memory because the bilingual brain is constantly searching for the right words in the right language. These kinds of mental gymnastics and improved thinking also means that bilinguals can learn other languages more easily. It is common to find people in the world who speak five or more languages—and they often say it is easy to do once they had learned the first couple of languages.
4. It makes kids smarter. Jones also describes an experiment in which monolingual and bilingual eight-year-old girls were tested using different arrangements of colored blocks. The bilingual girls displayed enhanced “complex spatial reasoning” compared to the monolingual girls; “they were much more adept at understanding what the arrangement of four coloured blocks would look like,” the researcher said. This is great news for parents who are worried that learning two languages as a child will be too confusing. While this theory was popular years ago, it has now been disproven—today most people agree that the benefits of speaking more languages far outweighs the little setbacks that children may have with the languages when they are first learning.
5. You can enjoy life more. When you speak a second language, it is like a whole new world opens up to you. In addition to learning new ways of expressing yourself and ways of thinking in that culture, you have an entire universe of music, film, food, comedy, poetry, literature and history to learn about or experience. This opens you up to twice as much enjoyment; you are not limited to resources solely in your native language. Reading a classic novel in its original language can give you a whole new perspective on an old story; understanding the words of a romantic ballad or understanding a very funny joke, may have been lost on you had you not spoken the language. These are all some of the joys of being bilingual.
Do you speak more than one language?
Do you think it makes a difference in the way you communicate?
Leave us a comment below!