How Being Bilingual Rewires Your Brain

Having the ability to speak more than one language is probably one of the most important skills you can have today, with the growing rise of what is known as the ‘global village’ and the constant meeting of different cultures. Not only can it give you a massive advantage in the process of working with people and when you’re trying to forge new intercultural relationships, but studies are now also showing that the effect being bilingual has on your brain is very beneficial.

It’s like exercise for your brain

When you are switching between two or more languages for a period of time, your brain is doing the equivalent of a gymnastics performance, because it is working to process information coming at it in different forms and provide output in the correct context. To do so successfully, it has to take into account different grammatical rules, pronunciations, expressions that work in one language but not another, and certain words that simply won’t translate well. For those who were born into families where the parents communicated in two languages from the start, or where they were taught more than one language from a young age, all this happens without the person even thinking about it – with research now showing that babies even can pick this up in utero.

That is because their brain is wired differently from those of monolinguals even from a development standpoint. These people also tend to have the ability to add additional languages with ease, because their brain is well accustomed to the idea that communication takes place in more than one language. Think of it like a high-way. When you are monolingual, you can drive in one lane only, and your brain has difficulty visualizing other lanes. But when you are able to converse in more than one language (especially from a young age), the other lanes open up to you, and you can move between the different lanes with ease.

The study

According to Pennsylvania State University cognitive scientist Judith F. Kroll, when you are bilingual, you have two ‘switches’ in your brain that are always on. You cannot turn one off, and your brain is wired to always process information in both languages. As for the monolinguals who want to learn another language, not to worry, the mental effort it takes to switch between two ‘tongues’ will eventually reshape your brain’s networks as well. One of the studies compared the results of 120 infants and the way language affects the way humans operate, even at a young age. It looked at four-month old, eight-month old, and one-year old babies, of whom 60 were bilingual and 60 monolingual.

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The results

The research indicated that as the infants grew older, the ones who routinely listened to two languages – Spanish and Catalan in this case – began to look at the speaker’s mouth instead of their eyes when they were listening to someone speak. On the other hand, the babies who were exposed to only one language only looked at mouths more than eyes when someone was speaking their mother tongue. Kroll explained to Quartz that this study was a prime indicator of how multiple languages can enhance a person’s cognitive abilities. “Babies who are listening to two languages [growing up] become attuned to those two languages right away,” she said. “It’s not confusing them or messing them up developmentally – the opposite is true.”

If you want to ensure your children grow up with a brain wired to be bilingual, or want this for yourself, this can easily be accomplished. Even if you don’t speak two languages in the house, you can listen to music that features foreign languages. French cafe music, or Italian ballads, for example, makes for great background music that the whole family can enjoy. Foreign language movies are a great way to do this as well, and you will learn parts of the language yourself while enjoying them.

Want to know more?

When it comes to your brain and how to keep it healthy, fitness is a phenomenal method. Exercise is good for your mind, for a ton of reasons. One biggie: getting active slashes stress, and taming tension is the single most important thing you can do to slow memory loss and sidestep fuzzy thinking. Stress hormones switch off parts of the hippocampus, a brain area involved with memory, reducing the ability to learn. Over time, high anxiety can tip over into depression, and that messes with memory.

These days, we’re excited about the slew of research that shows how exercise helps your brain. If you want to find out how to apply this to your own life, click on the link.