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Speaking more than one language certainly doesn’t hurt when job hunting or traveling, but the benefits of bilingualism go way beyond your resume or your passport. I’m talking about your brain. You’ve probably heard that bilingualism can stave off dementia or Alzheimer’s in as you age, but what is it doing for your brain right now? A lot.
1. Bilinguals are better multi-taskers.
Children who grow up learning to speak two languages can switch between tasks more easily than those who only learn languages. Their brain is conditioned to switching between languages frequently, so it is better suited to switching between other tasks as well.
A study funded by the National Institutes of Health asked both bilingual and monolingual children to press a computer key when viewing a series of images on the computer. When the images were limited to one key and one category, the children responded at equal speed. But when the task involved pressing different keys for different image categories (such as animals or colors), the bilingual children were faster to make the change.
A separate study put bilinguals and monolinguals behind the wheel of a car and asked them to multitask. While all of the drivers’ driving got worse while talking on the phone, the bilinguals didn’t suffer as badly as the monolinguals. Bilingualism gives them the unique ability to add another task while concentrating on the task before them.
I wouldn’t recommend making a call while you drive, but I’m sure we can all think of other scenarios where better multi-tasking skills would be beneficial.
2. Bilinguals have more control over their attention.
Those who understand two languages must learn to subconsciously block out one language while speaking or listening to the other. In every day scenarios, this can lead to better attention and fewer distractions.
A study at Northwestern University used electrodes to measure sound waves generated in the brain stem while subjects listened to a simple sound over and over. Monolinguals and bilinguals processed the sound the same way, but when background noise was added in, bilinguals were better able to block it out and focus on the simple sound.
In a world where we’re more connected and face more distractions than ever (I’m talking to you, Facebook), controlling your attention is more important than ever.
3. Bilinguals make more rational decisions.
When you get to think something over in two different languages, you get to double check your work, in a way, helping you make more rational decisions.
A University of Chicago study found that when speaking of their non-native language, individuals are less likely to succumb to loss aversion because the foreign language does not ignite as emotional of a response when making tough decisions. Specifically, the students were given 15 $1 bills, which they could either keep, or bet on a coin toss. Native English speakers were far more likely to bet on the coin toss (a likely long-term gain), but only when presented with the scenario in Spanish.
Betting on a simple coin toss: not a big deal. But as the article shows, without the tendency towards loss aversion, bilinguals are more likely to invest their money wisely early on, which is a very big deal.
4. Bilinguals are more perceptive and observant.
When you’re switching from one language to another, your brain is keeping track of what you’re doing. It’s so used to keeping track of these small changes that it is more attentive to small changes in your environment as well.
One example of the enhanced perception of bilinguals is exhibited by young babies. At very early stages, all babies can distinguish between languages, even just by reading lips, without hearing the language itself. But this ability fades in monolingual babies, while remaining strong in bilingual babies. The exposure to multiple languages offers these babies the ability to distinguish even among languages they’re not aware of. Interesting, researchers studied this by placing babies in front of a silent TV. All babies got bored of watching a woman speak in mixed English and French after a while. But when that woman started speaking a third language, only the bilingual babies became attentive once again.
Reading lips could have its own rewards, but there are plenty of viable situations and careers in which perceptiveness is a very attractive quality.
5. Bilinguals have improved working memory.
If you’ve ever learned another language, you know how much time must be spent learning and storing new words, expressions, grammar rules, patterns, etc. So it’s probably no surprise that bilinguals show signs of better working memory.
Studies by York University showed the bilingual children outperformed monolingual children on a series of tests that challenge executive functions such as working memory. For example, bilingual children could better remember the sequence in which a series of items was presented.
A stronger working memory could come in handy in every day situations, even remembering a phone number or a sequence of account numbers and passwords. Who wouldn’t love to remember all of their passwords?
It’s never too late to reap the benefits of bilingualism, cognitive and otherwise. Want to get started boosting your brain? Sign up for a free trial of Transparent Language Online.
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