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Being bilingual "provides the brain built-in exercise"

Spanish_booksWith less than two months left in 2014, many of us will soon begin the annual ritual of selecting our New Year's resolutions. Those who are looking to boost their brain power may want to consider learning a second language in 2015: Research published today in the journal Brain and Language shows that being bilingual makes the brain more efficient at processing information.

In the study, researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology to examine participants' brains as they performed language comprehension tests. For example, researchers would say the word "cloud" to individuals while showing them four pictures, including one of a cloud and others of similar-sounding objects, like a clown. To complete the exercise, participants had to recognize the correct photo and ignore the irrelevant images. According to a release, study results showed:

The bilingual speakers were better at filtering out the competing words because their brains are used to controlling two languages and inhibiting the irrelevant words, the researchers found.

The fMRI scans showed that "monolinguals had more activation in the inhibitory control regions than bilinguals; they had to work much harder to perform the task," [said lead author Viorica Marian, PhD.]


"Inhibitory control is a hallmark of cognition," said Marian. "Whether we're driving or performing surgery, it's important to focus on what really matters and ignore what doesn't."

The fact that bilinguals are constantly practicing inhibitory control could also help explain why bilingualism appears to offer a protective advantage against Alzheimer's and dementia, said Marian.

"That's the exciting part," she said. "Using another language provides the brain built-in exercise. You don't have to go out of your way to do a puzzle because the brain is already constantly juggling two languages."

The findings add to the growing body of scientific evidence showing that being bilingual can have profound impacts on your brain.

Previously: Study shows bilingualism may enhance attention and working memory and ¿Habla Español? How bilingualism may delay the onset of Alzheimer’s symptoms
Photo by Megan Morris

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