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How being bilingual strengthens our brains

by Jeremy Deaton

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James A. Garfield ranks among the less remarkable U.S. presidents, owing largely to the fact that he was assassinated just 200 days into his first term. For that reason, Garfield is less remembered for his policy achievements than for his personal quirks.

The president was both bilingual and ambidextrous. It’s rumored that he entertained guests by writing in Greek with one hand and Latin with the other simultaneously. Garfield was also known for his wisdom and restraint. “Right reason is stronger than force,” he once said. He wasn’t the kind to lose his cool.

As it happens, research suggests these characteristics are related—learning a second language can improve self-discipline.

Studies show that bilingualism is associated with better executive function, a term used to describe several higher-order cognitive skills, including the ability to control our own behavior. Executive function allows us to play a game of chess or follow the plot of “Mad Men”, but it’s best understood as what allows us to make plans, get organized, and stay on task. Learning a new language can help cultivate these skills.

“I speak Korean and English,” says Yang Hwajin, a professor of psychology at Singapore Management University. “When I speak English, I have to inhibit thoughts about Korean grammar and focus on English grammar, as the two languages do not share any grammatical structure. Speaking these two languages has trained me to inhibit distractions and focus better.”

This skill, known as task switching, is related to executive function. To do it well, one ought to focus on one task (speaking English) and then another (speaking Korean), ideally without jumbling words or syntax between the two different languages. This entails working in one mode and then the other.

Infants reared in bilingual households often see greater cognitive development. Even very young children who grow up hearing two different languages are able to sort one from the other—a difficult mental task. These benefits are apparent as children continue to grow and evolve. Students in dual-language classrooms, for example, tend to perform better in some areas in school.

“What we have found in the last three decades is that bilingualism has substantial impact on cognitive function—the way that we think, make decisions, perceive things, solve decisions, and so on,” Hwajin says.

It’s worth noting that some of this research is contested. Scientists have yet to reach a consensus on how bilingualism shapes cognitive development, but they generally agree that learning a new language is a workout for the brain. And this reaps measurable benefits well into old age.

Learning a new language tones the brain by strengthening neural networks. While some parts of the brain control a specific task—the visual cortex processes sight, the auditory cortex processes sound—there is no part of the brain that specifically controls language.

Speaking a language—even just one language—is such a complex task that it engages the entire brain. One must understand the meaning of thousands of words, the way they fit together, and the cultural context that offer weight and meaning. These processes must happen simultaneously and in conjunction, each a moving part in a complex machine. Learning a new language tightens the gears.

Bilingual seniors tend to stay sharp as they age, are more likely to recover from a stroke, and have shown signs of dementia and Alzheimer’s four or five years later than their monolingual peers. The bilingual brain features stronger connections between disparate parts, allowing bilingual seniors to harness resiliency others may lack.

These benefits are immensely valuable, and speaking additional languages can come in handy. It allows you to communicate with a wider range of people, navigate other parts of the world, and better understand different cultures. It’s useful anywhere, from the bodega to the boardroom. More than half the population is onto this.

“One language sets you in a corridor for life,” says psycholinguist Frank Smith. “Two languages open every door along the way.”

Artwork by CHRIS MARKLAND/SHANNON MOSS

Jeremy Deaton

By day, Jeremy writes about climate and energy for Nexus Media. His work has appeared on Popular Science, Business Insider, ThinkProgress, and Grist. By night, he is a recovering musician, avid runner, and guacamole connoisseur. You can follow him @deaton_jeremy.

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