Bilingualism Can Make You Smarter
Being bilingual has serious, practical advantages in this global economy; but there may be some hidden cognitive advantages to speaking two languages as well. Research into the benefits of bilingualism has yielded results that seem to indicate that bilingual individuals are at a cognitive advantage over single-language speakers. Research into this topic has shown time and again that the cognitive differences between monolingual and bilingual individuals that may be pronounced enough to make the idea of taking online classes in a foreign language seem quite enticing.
Types of Tests
The differences between bilingual and monolingual children are most notable when testers are asked to complete mental puzzles. In the study that showed the most pronounced difference between the two groups, children were asked to sort colored shapes into digital bins. This type of test is a measure of the brain’s executive function, or command system. Because bilingual testers so markedly outperformed their monolingual, same-aged peers, the test seems to indicate conclusively that bilingual children are at a cognitive advantage.
Once researchers discovered that bilingual individuals performed better on some forms of cognitive testing, they turned their efforts towards determining why these dual-language speakers outperformed their peers. Though no definitive answers have been discovered, there are a number of likely causes for this advantage.
One school of thought is that these bilingual testers do better because they have an enhanced ability to focus by inhibiting part of their brain. These two-language speakers can turn off part of their brain when they want to speak one language and turn it back on at will to speak the other, something that could aid them in focusing on complex mental tasks.
Another idea is that bilingual individuals are simply better at monitoring their environments, as they have to be aware of where they are and with whom they’re communicating when they decide which language to speak. Many researchers believe this extra environmental monitoring practice makes these individuals more adept at taking in environmental cues and using them to solve problems.
Potential Research Problems
While many research studies have been done on this topic, and a large number support the idea that bilingualism could have a more complex effect on mental processes than it may initially appear, other researchers caution that individuals shouldn’t view these results as entirely conclusive. These researchers point to the fact that other factors could be contributing to this perceived mental advantage, including, but not limited to, the fact that bilingual children are generally more likely to be affluent children, as parents with means are more likely to have the option of exposing their children to language learning at an earlier age.
Because affluent children generally do better than children of lower socio-economic classes in academics in general, this could minimize the overall impact of these findings. Researchers who continue to tout the benefits of bilingualism counter this argument by maintaining that the benefits of bilingualism extend well beyond childhood; elderly dual-language speakers experience reduced rates of dementia, a condition largely not impacted by socio-economic status.
While most of the research on this topic has been performed on children who are bilingual, researchers contend that these advantages aren’t reserved for dual-language speakers who grew up speaking two different languages. These researchers argue that adults who receive language education and develop bilingualism later in life may still reap many of these benefits, even if they are less pronounced than those experienced by lifelong bilinguals.
Speaking two languages is a skill many would like to possess, regardless of the added cognitive advantage bilingual individuals may experience. For those considering picking up another language, the knowledge of this potential mental benefit will likely provide just another reason to study up and acquire these added language skills.
About the Author
Lindsey Harper Mac is a writer and editor living in Indianapolis. She writes on behalf of Colorado Technical University.