Science Reveals Something Surprising About People Who Speak More Than One Language


Learning more than one language isn't just good for traveling — it may actually make you better at performing tasks that aren't even related to linguistics. 

A recent study in Brain and Language by University of Washington researchers generated this somewhat surprising statistic: Bilingual people are about half a second faster at executing novel instructions, like "add 1 to x, divide y by 2, and sum the results" than their monolingual cousins. 

In short, the approximately 20% of Americans who are bilingual may tend to have better executive functioning — the network of cognitive processes involved in reasoning and problem solving, among others — than the rest of us.

The study: UW's Andrea Stocco and Chantel Prat reached this conclusion by subjecting 17 bilingual and 14 monolingual people to a battery of arithmetic problems, each comprised of a set of operations and two inputs. Pacific Standards' Nathan Collins explains the process involved:

First, participants ran through 40 practice problems using just two operation sets. Next, they went through another 40 problems, this time a mix of 20 new ones, each with a unique set of operations and inputs, and another 20 featuring the previously studied arithmetic operations, but with new inputs for x and y. Finally, the groups worked through 40 more problems, again a mix of familiar and novel, but this time, they completed them inside a fMRI brain scanner.

The good news for those of us who speak only English is that monolinguals evenly matched bilinguals on accuracy and solved the familiar problems just as quickly. But when the bilingual group was asked to complete the novel problems, they beat out the one-language crowd handily. The brain scans show that the basal ganglia, which exhibits influence on the motor system and action selection, was more active when respondents were completing the unfamiliar problems.

The researchers believe the "generalized improvements in cognitive performance" seen among the bilingual crowd indicates their brains are more easily able to adapt between various competing sets of rules, allowing them to adapt more quickly to new situations. Since learning even one language is a tremendously difficult task, Stocco and Prat believe that the process of learning an additional one has long-lasting cognitive benefits.

Other benefits of bilingualism: The study is far from the first to suggest that learning two languages has an array of other benefits for cognitive health. In the U.K.'s famous long-term Lothian Birth Cohort study, language researchers compared 1,100 monolingual 11-year-olds in 1947 to the remaining 843 of the original test subjects some 60-plus years later. 

They found that only those who had learned an additional language in the interim had noticeably improved cognitive performance. The results suggested that learning more languages trains the brain to process incoming information more efficiently, resulting in increased performance in other domains. The team also demonstrated the positive effects that follow can occur even in full-grown adults.

So for anyone who didn't bother learning another language, this newest study provides some evidence that you're not just missing out on the ability to speak to the locals on your tour of Mexico City — you're also not training your brain to work more efficiently. Fortunately, the research demonstrates that when it comes to language, it's never to late to teach an old dog new tricks.