Sign the kids up for French immersion (and take some lessons of your own)! A new MRI study confirms a long-held suspicion that the brains of bilingual people are more efficient at processing not only language, but other tasks as well.
The study, published today in the journal Brain and Language, reveals that learning or speaking multiple languages is very much the mental equivalent to regular exercise. “[The brain is] like a stop light,” says Viorica Marian, lead author of the study and professor at Northwestern University’s School of Communication. “Bilinguals are always giving the green light to one language and red to another. When you have to do that all the time, you get really good at inhibiting the words you don’t need.”
The study used fMRI to compare the brains of monolinguals and bilinguals, having them perform language comprehension tasks such as asking them to listen to a word such as “cloud” and then identify a cloud image among a series of other images such “clown”, or “crowd”. The participants who only speak one language had a much harder time at inhibiting control during such tests. The bilinguals, on the other hand, who are accustomed to constantly filtering information through their brains in this way, scored much higher.
“Inhibitory control is a hallmark of cognition,” says Marian. “Whether we’re driving or performing surgery, it’s important to focus on what really matters and ignore what doesn’t.”
Marian, who has been bilingual since childhood, is also keen to champion the acquisition of new languages as an effective means of combating dementia.
“It’s never too late to learn another language,” she says. “The benefits can be seen after just one semester of studying.”