Learning a second language is good for you: bilingualism’s brainy benefits

“I speak Latin to God, Italian to women, French to men and German to my horse.”

The early 16th-century Emperor Charles V spoke several languages, and is thought to have originated the above witticism. Regardless of the accuracy of the quote’s attribution or content, it implies that languages have powerful situational uses. Languages are intimately entwined with regions’ culture and history. Beyond the benefits of multilingualism to travel and cultural appreciation, evidence collected over the past few decades strongly suggests that learning a second language also has numerous cognitive benefits.

Why learning a second language is good for you

First, we can note that many cognitive processes are unconscious – that is, we aren’t aware they’re happening. One interesting study found that bilingual brains unconsciously translate written words. Chinese-English bilinguals were asked to judge whether the meanings of a pair of English words were related or not while undergoing brain EEG recordings.

Unbeknownst to them, half the word pairs had character repetitions when translated to Chinese. Though these hidden character repetitions didn’t affect behavioral performance, brain activations patterns significantly differed when hidden character repetitions were present. As such, the study provided evidence that bilingualism leads to complex, automatic, and unconscious language processing.

For example, study participants displayed a unique type of brain frequency when presented with the English words post and mail, which correspond to 邮政 and 邮件. These frequencies were distinct from those recorded while participants observed other semantically similar words in English that did not share characters in Chinese.

Bilingualism improves self control

This study provides a perfect segway to our next point – in a bilingual person, evidence suggests that both of their language systems are always active (even when only one is in use). We can think of both systems as inevitably coming into conflict. The brain is constantly trying to predict the next syllables in a word that make sense in context.

One article gives the example of a Russian-English bilingual who hears the phrase “pick up a marker.” In Russian, “marka” translates to “stamp”. Of course, it’s unlikely the speaker is actually asking our listener to pick a stamp instead of a marker. Here, our listener must simultaneously ignore the Russian translation of the coincidental homonym and attend towards the meaning of the sentence such that they can act on the request.

This general regulatory system, which controls cognitive inhibition and attention, is referred to as executive function. The parts of your brain that are correlated with this type of task reside in the prefrontal cortex (the very forwardmost portion of your brain) and are also utilized, say, when you decide not to have a 3rd portion of ice cream despite being quarantined with nothing to do.

Because bilingual people must constantly inhibit one irrelevant language while attending to another (thus exercising executive function), researchers speculate that ability would translate across tasks that also require executive function.

Indeed, bilingual people seem to outperform their monolingual peers on tasks that involve conflict management such as the Stroop test (click here to take the test), as well as tasks that involve switching between objectives (thus requiring inhibition of the previous goal, and attention towards the novel one).

Bilingualism prevents disease

Bilingualism has a ton of perks. Some evidence suggests that the increased inhibitory control demonstrated by bilinguals helps them to easily acquire novel words, and, by extension, new languages. Other evidence shows that bilingualism may delay the effects of brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s. One study found that bilinguals with Alzheimer’s disease started showing symptoms more than five years after their monolingual peers did.

Yet another study found that brains of bilinguals with Alzheimer’s had significantly more atrophy than their monolingual peers who were matched for cognitive ability. In other words, disease progression had to be significantly more advanced in bilinguals before they were impaired to the same extent of monolinguals. This suggests that learning another language induces brain structural and functional remodeling that allows for enhanced cognitive capacity. 

Unfortunately, bilingualism probably isn’t a silver bullet

As with all scientific studies, we must be aware of the possibility for false-positive results. Results from many studies cannot be replicated – as demonstrated by a Nature poll of 1,576 scientists (70% had tried and failed to reproduce the same results from prior experiments). Recently, a study of 118 participants found no effect of bilingualism on previously reported cognitive measures.

However, a metanalysis that analyzed data from 63 studies (with 6,022 total participants) found reliable associations between bilingualism and cognitive skills. The incongruity between studies can be explained by small sample size, small effect size, poor study design, and many other possible factors. The general takeaway seems to be that bilingualism has definite cognitive benefits, and extent of these benefits likely depends on individual variables that could not be accounted for across studies. In fact, the effects of bilingualism may be present as early as 7 months of age.  

TLDR: Being bilingual can increase cognitive functions such as inhibitory control and attention modulation. It makes it easier to acquire new words (and likely new languages), and may decrease the severity of structural brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Try Chinese – it’s not as hard as everyone says.

If you’re convinced that learning a second language is good for you, then you should check out our posts on learning Chinese; our HSK2 Guide takes you from zero to conversational proficiency in 60 days! Follow us on Facebook or Pinterest if you want regular tips and tricks on language learning.

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