Bilinguals More Efficient at Higher-Level Brain Functions, Study Says
Bilingual people are more efficient at higher-level brain functions.
New research suggests that those who speak two languages likely have the "bilingualism advantage," meaning that they're more efficient at language processing and other tasks.
The "bilingualism advantage" has long been assumed to enhance an ability to differentiate between important information and non-important material, stemming from how bilingual individuals process and practice language. And those assumptions have been proven to be true, according to Ellen Bialystok, a psychologist at York University in Toronto, who wasn't involved with the research.
Brain scans were surveyed during the study published in the journal "Brain and Language," showing that those who only spoke one language had to work harder to focus on a single word.
Bilingual brains are constantly activating both languages in their brains, choosing which to ignore and which to use, said study leader Viorica Marian, a linguistic psychologist at Northwestern University.
"Bilinguals are much better at ignoring irrelevant words," when compared to those who speak only a single language, Marian told Live Science during an interview. She shared that she and colleagues discovered previous studies indicating that when bilingual people hear a word in one language, they often looked at objects with similar sound names to that word in their second language. Researchers looked at how the ability to filter info manifests in the brain by using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of 17 fluent English and Spanish speakers, and 18 English speakers from the University of Houston.
Volunteers participating heard the names of an object and simultaneously were shown a picture of said object, as well as an object with a similar sounding name, and two unrelated items. For example, the word "cloud" would be accompanied by images of a cloud, a clown and two other things. As quickly as possible, volunteers would be made to choose the image that showed the word they head.
The result: Bilingual individuals were no faster than monolinguals when performing the task, but their brain activity was differently marked. Those who spoke only English lit up much more than their bilingual counterparts in the region of the brain that controls higher-level functions, including suppressing the meaning of competing words. Simply stated, monolinguals' brains were forced to work harder to perform the same task, researchers said.
"The bilingual has to lift more weight than the monolingual, because bilinguals experience competition within and between both their languages while listening to speech," the researchers told Live Science in an email signed by each researcher. "But the bilingual is also stronger, because they've been mentally 'working out' like this for their whole life."
This particular study has earned praise from other scientists because of researchers' approach to surveying and studying the brain activity of bilingual people, as it fills in one of the most important missing pieces in the public's understanding of how bilingualism leads to cognitive benefits.
Behavior has often been the sole focus in previously research on the benefits of bilingualism, which has drawn criticism from scientists. The new study contributes to the field by showcasing irrefutable proof that filtering information activates different brain areas in bilinguals versus monolinguals.
Multiple language users have likely obtained other benefits, as well. In a previous study published in the journal, "Bilingualism: Language and Cognition," researchers found that bilingual children were able to ignore classroom noise with much more ease than monolingual children. And other research suggests that being bilingual may stave off Alzheimer's disease and dementia for a few years because bilingualism keeps the brain nimble and producing gray matter. However, other studies have produced conflicting results on that matter, suggesting that much more research is needed.
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