What is being bilingual doing to your brain?

August 3, 2016
What is being bilingual doing to your brain?

We know that being bilingual reshapes some of the ways in which the brain works, but a recent study has revealed in more detail the impact that bilingualism can have. Pennsylvania State University cognitive scientist Judith F. Kroll has found that mastery of two different languages can alter the very way in which your brain works, compared with monolingual minds. 

Bilingualism reshapes the brain

According to Kroll’s study, which was presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Washington, DC earlier this year, being bilingual changes the brain’s networks in a number of ways. 

The research found that both languages are active in bilingual brains at all times. Effectively, this means that the languages are competing with one another, which reshapes the way in which the brain supports each language. It’s not a case of switching between the languages, but rather of selecting from both. And that mental juggling has wider implications than just language learning. Kroll observes:

“What we know from recent research is that at every level of language processing -- from words to grammar to speech -- we see the presence of cross-language interaction and competition. Sometimes we see these cross-language interactions in behavior, but sometimes we only see them in brain data…

“The consequences of bilingualism are not limited to language but reflect a reorganization of brain networks that hold implications for the ways in which bilinguals negotiate cognitive competition more generally.” 

Not all bilinguals are equal

Just as interesting is the finding that not all bilingual brains are equal. There are differences between those who grew up with two languages spoken around them versus those who grew up with a primary language and then learned a secondary one. Which languages the bilingual speaks and the context in which they are used also have an impact on how the brain rewires itself in order to process them. 

Previous studies have considered how this happens for those who grow up in a bilingual environment. Northeastern University, the University of Barcelona and the Barcelona Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behavior looked at infants aged 4, 8 and 12 months in order to gauge their reactions to their bilingual and monolingual environments. They found that as infants grew older, those exposed to two languages (in this study, Spanish and Catalan) would focus more on speakers’ mouths rather than their eyes, regardless of the language being spoken. By 12 months old, the monolingual infants in the study focused more on the speaker’s mouth only when their native tongue was spoken, indicating that developmental changes were already taking place in the brain by one year of age. 

Lifelong benefits

Bilinguals enjoy lifelong benefits as a result of their rewired brains. Studies have shown that they are able to perform cognitive tasks known as executive functions faster than their monolingual counterparts. Executive functions include attentional control, inhibitory control, working memory, cognitive flexibility, reasoning, problem solving and planning. Bilinguals’ constant processing of information in two languages means that they are more adept at these functions – their brains have been shaped to process these kinds of tasks faster. 

Boosting of executive functions through language learning doesn’t have to be achieved at an early age. Executive functions can be improved at any time of a person’s life, so learning a second language at the age of seven will reshape the brain, just as learning it at 70 would. Although as research has suggested that our capacity for language acquisition diminishes with age, it might take the 70 year old somewhat longer to achieve the same benefits. 

In either case, learning to speak a second language fluently will lead to the brain operating in different ways and will have benefits that not only include being able to work as a professional human translator, but extend way beyond this into many other areas of life. 

Final thoughts

How did you learn your second language? If you learned it in later life, did you consciously notice any improvement in your executive functions? Let us know your thoughts by leaving a comment.