Speaking multiple languages has its benefits, like traveling around the world with ease and understanding local cultures better. But there’s another, bigger, benefit.
Being bilingual or multilingual changes your brain—for the better.
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Not long ago, people believed that learning two languages confused the brain, an idea that’s since been discarded. “The brain is wired to just learn stuff. There is nothing in the brain that restricts it to one language,” says Ellen Bialystok, a research professor of psychology at York University in Toronto, Canada. Her lab has published pioneering work in the field of bilingualism.
Have you ever considered learning a second language? Here’s why you should.
1. It strengthens your brain.
In a 2016 study published in Child Development, Bialystok’s team found that bilingual children were better at certain tasks related to executive function. Executive function is a complex set of mental skills, such as self-control and paying attention, that are essential for living meaningfully. Scientists are still studying executive function and its uses, but they do know that much of it is controlled by the frontal regions of the brain.
The advantage lies in the ability to switch from one language to another, similar to code switching.
In the study, two groups of children—monolinguals and bilinguals—were asked to perform a task called Go/No Go. Basically, they sat in front of a computer screen and saw shapes appear on the screen one at a time. The kids were instructed to press a key quickly if the shape was a circle, but don’t press anything if it was a square. Sometimes the participants were shown many circles in a row before a square appeared.
“They got into the habit of pressing, and they got fast at it,” Bialystok says. “So when they saw a square which meant ‘don’t press it,’ it was hard to do—it required a lot of executive control because they were in the habit of pressing.”
Subsequent brain scans showed that the bilingual participants were better at the task than their monolingual counterparts. “The brain signals that we got from their brains were more mature,” Bialystok says. “They looked more like the sorts of brain signals we expect from adults, so we could say that the bilingual children were showing a more mature response to this very simple task.”
The advantage lies in the ability to switch from one language to another, similar to code switching. “When you have two languages that you’re able to speak, they are always active in your mind,” Bialystok says. Let’s say you speak Hindi and English. When you speak to a person who understands the former, you will naturally use that language during the conversation, yet Hindi and English are always actively at work in your brain.
It’s this ability to switch that is at the heart of the bilingual advantage. “That mechanism for selecting the correct language that you need to be speaking right now is part of this general executive function system,” Bialystok says. “This means that executive function system in bilinguals gets a ton of practice that it does not get for monolinguals.”
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2. It helps protect against symptoms of age-related brain diseases.
New studies show that bilingualism can protect people from the symptoms of brain diseases that strike during later years. In a 2013 study published in Neurology, Indian and British scientists found that bilingual adults were diagnosed with dementia—an umbrella term for many degenerative brain diseases—four to five years later than monolinguals. Education levels did not appear to influence the results. Similarly, in a 2010 study focusing on Alzheimer’s disease, researchers found that bilinguals were diagnosed four years later than monolinguals.
“Bilingualism doesn’t protect you against Alzheimer’s disease itself,” says Judith Kroll, former director of the Center for Language Science at Pennsylvania State University. “What bilingualism does is provide protection against the symptoms of the disease. Unlike monolinguals, bilinguals are able to compensate for the cognitive consequences of dementia.” The protection that bilingualism provides is thought to develop because of the constant code-switching between languages. The juggling changes their brains and minds in ways that protect them from cognitive decline.
3. The earlier, the better.
In a study published online in Developmental Science in April 2016, Naja Ferjan Ramírez, a research scientist at the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences (I-LABS) at the University of Washington, found that baby brains are capable of processing two languages.
In this study, two groups of 11-month-old babies from monolingual and bilingual households sat on a special highchair while language sounds played. The highchair was positioned so that a baby’s head was inside a magnetoencephalography (MEG) machine. MEG is a non-invasive technique that scientists use to record brain activity. It’s completely silent, so the babies weren’t disturbed.
The sounds varied between Spanish, English and those sounds that are common to both languages. The results were astounding. “What we saw at 11 months is that the monolingual brain was specialized to process one language, but the bilingual baby brain was specialized to process the sounds of both languages—Spanish and English,” Ferjan Ramírez says.
“Bilingual babies showed stronger responses to language sounds in the prefrontal cortex,” Ferjan Ramírez adds. “The prefrontal activity is related to executive function.”
Although it’s true that that learning a new language as an adult is more difficult, with persistent practice, you can strengthen your brain and widen your worldview.