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How Bilingualism Benefits the Brain

Compiled and written by Murali Kamma Email Compiled and written by Murali Kamma
November 2011
How Bilingualism Benefits the Brain To speak or not to speak multiple languages is not a question. It’s always better to be bilingual (or multilingual) than monolingual. While the external benefits seem obvious, given the rise of globalization, research shows that there are also internal benefits. So how does bilingualism boost brain power?

Earlier, observational studies found that because a bilingual brain is more active it could delay the onset of symptoms related to Alzheimer’s disease. Now CT scans have confirmed that view, according to the journal Cortex, although more work is needed.

The key to understanding this is the “executive control system,” as York University psychologist Ellen Bialystok put it. Even though just one language is being used while speaking, both languages are active in a bilingual brain. There is complexity, in other words, rather than confusion, thereby strengthening neural connections and our cognitive ability. If bilingualism forces the brain to focus by cutting out clutter, does it also help with the informational overload of the digital age? One wonders.

What’s interesting for bilingual Indians who are parents is that children start benefitting at a very early stage. In fact, it starts in the womb. Hearing two languages is better than hearing one even before a child can speak. Patricia Kuhl, of I-LABS at the University of Washington, points out that young children in bilingual households (1) remain open to language learning, and (2) show more flexible thinking. Moreover, it’s been shown that bilingualism can help one with problem-solving and doing well on standardized tests.

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