Scientists explain: bilinguals are smarter

Recent studies explain the effects of bilingualism and how it improves cognitive skills, unrelated to languages, and prevent dementia in older age.
Written by Ina Muri, Weekend Editor

In recent years scientists have been trying to figure out if there is an effect to being bilingual, beyond the obvious practical benefits of living in a globalized world, Yudhijit Bhattacharjee reports for The New York Times.

It turns out being bilingual has profound effects on your brain; improving cognitive skills that are not related to language and even prevent dementia in older age. In short—it makes you smarter.

Over the years, researchers, educators and policy makers have considered a second language to create a cognitive interference to hinder a child’s academic and intellectual development, Bhattacharjee writes.

There is evidence that a bilingual’s language systems are both active, even when they’re only using one, which leaves the possibility of one system interrupting the other. Yet, this interference is turning out to be a blessing in disguise, Bhattacharjee writes. It appears bilinguals are forcing the brain to resolve internal conflicts that give the mind a workout that strengthens its cognitive muscle.

Further, evidence suggests the bilingual experience improves the brain’s executive function, which is a command system that directs the attention process we use when we plan, solve problems and perform various mentally demanding tasks.  These processes include ignoring distractions to stay focused, switch the attention from one thing to another and hold information in mind—similar to remembering directions while driving.

Until recently, researchers thought the bilingual advantages stemmed from their capability to suppress one language system for the other. It was thought that this would help train the bilingual mind to ignore distractions in other contexts. Since then studies have shown that bilinguals perform better than monolinguals also at tasks that do not require inhibitions, like threading a line through an ascending series of numbers that are scattered randomly on a page.

The key difference between bilinguals and monolinguals might be that they have a heightened ability to monitor the environment, Albert Costa, a researcher at the University of Pompea Fabra in Spain, told Bhattacharjee. In a study where Costa and his colleagues compared German-Italian bilinguals with Italian monolinguals on monitoring tasks, they found that the bilinguals performed better, with less activity in part of the brain involved in monitoring. This indicates that they are more proficient at it.

This effect also stretch into the senior years, as a recent study of 44 elderly Spanish-English bilinguals found that individuals with a higher degree of bilingualism were more resistant than others to develop dementia and other types of Alzheimer’s disease.

Image courtesy: Harriet Russel/The New York Times

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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