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More Evidence that Being Bilingual Makes You Smarter

A lot of evidence has started accumulating about the benefits for your brain of being bilingual. Here is another: A study in toddlers shows that switching between two different languages increases mental flexibility and improves performance on conflict inhibition tasks.

Switching between languages

The newly published research from at Concordia University looked at bilingual compared to monolingual toddlers while they were in the process of learning new words. The bilingual children lived in a household where both languages were used and alternated. What they found was an enhanced type of mental control in those toddlers who often switched between languages.

The study followed a set of children, 39 bilingual and 43 monolingual, and tested them at 24 months and 31 months old. Over the seven month period, the children learned new words. For the case of the bilingual children, they learned some words in both languages and had to learn how to switch between them, depending on the context. Interestingly, it seemed like the mental flexibility gained by those kids extended to non-verbal activities.

More words mean more cognitive flexibility

The participants were subjected to a variety of different tasks, but the one that made the bilingual kids stand out was the conflict inhibition test. One task was reverse categorization, where the kids had to place large blocks in large buckets and small blocks in small buckets, followed by the reverse instructions. For the second task they had to name pictures of different fruit, and this was followed by a test where they named a fruit that was placed in the middle of a picture of a larger fruit. These types of activities require the test subject to ignore certain “rules” when they are making decisions, which calls for selective attention abilities and cognitive flexibility.

“In conflict inhibition, the child has to ignore certain information – the size of a block relative to a bucket, or the fact that one fruit is inside another. That mirrors the experience of having to switch between languages, using a second language even though the word from a first language might be more easily accessible” said lead author of the study Cristina Crivello.

An important part of the finding was that toddlers who had learned more “doublets” – pairs of words in both languages – showed greater ability in the conflict inhibition trials.  This suggests that, as the bilingual individual’s vocabulary increases, their mental ability in that area improves as well.

Being bilingual changes your brain

Other research has suggested that speaking multiple languages fluently can provide important cognitive benefits. One study showed that older bilingual speakers retain better executive control functions. Another study shows that being bilingual means you have a much better chance of recovering from stroke or other neurological episodes affecting cognitive function. A third study showed that bilinguals have more grey matter in their brain, where learning and short-term memory regions reside.

There seems to be a lot of reasons piling up for becoming fluent in another language, and a diminishing list of reasons not to dust off that French dictionary.

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