Cognitive advantages of multilingualism

Author: Siniša Smiljanić

Published on 31 July 2015

 

Different life experiences affect our physical and cognitive abilities (e.g., perception, attention, memory, learning, inference, problem solving, decision making, intelligence) differently. For example, research has shown that, compared to the wider population, video game players are more sensitive to visual and professional musicians to auditory stimuli, while architects are better at recognising shapes and noticing spatial relations (see Bialystok, 2009, 2011). It is not news that long-time pursuit of a particular activity, whether physical or mental, apart from contributing to the development of certain skills, may physically affect the human brain. It is, however, less known that the ability to speak two or more languages, i.e. multilingualism, is one such experience that similarly affects human cognition.

Since they have to constantly “choose” between two (or more) languages in everyday communication while suppressing the unwanted language (or languages), multilinguals find themselves in a unique situation of control of their own verbal behaviour, which has an effect on their cognitive abilities. Most prominent advantages of multilingualism have been found in the domain of executive or control functions, i.e. functions that are responsible for the control of current behaviour, especially in situations of conflict between different stimuli. Research has shown that multilinguals are better than monolinguals in tasks that involve focused attention and inhibition of irrelevant or distracting stimuli, as well as switching between tasks. For example, multilingual children are more successful in tasks where objects need to be sorted according to different criteria. If the objects need to be sorted first by colour and then by shape, multilingual children switch to the second condition more easily than monolingual children. Also, multilinguals of all ages achieve better results in tasks such as the Stroop test, in which colours of words need to be named although their meanings point to an incorrect answer (e.g., the word “green” may be coloured in blue), which points to the fact that multilinguals are more successful at ignoring distracting stimuli. Also, children who frequently “choose” between two (or more) languages in everyday communication realise sooner that other peoples’s perspectives differ from their own. Multilingual children have a lot of experience in adjusting their choice of language according to the interlocutor – they know which language to use with whom and choose their language accordingly.

It is also suggested that multilinguals are better in mathematical reasoning and that they have enhanced creative problem solving skills. In addition, results from neurolinguistic studies suggest that multilingualism has a protective effect against cognitive decline in old age and that it can postpone symptoms of neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia up to five years. All of this, though, does not mean that multilinguals are more intelligent than monolinguals or that they cannot develop dementia; it just means that they have an additional “tool” that in some degree enhances their cognitive abilities and contributes to their longer preservation in old age. It should also be mentioned that these advantages will not necessarily manifest in all multilinguals since the “multilingual effect” depends on many factors such as the age of acquisition of the second language, language proficiency, frequency of language use, etc.

Finally, it must be stressed that the connection between multilingualism and its effects on our cognitive abilities is complex and despite numerous studies still insufficiently understood. However, considering the advantages that knowing more than one language entails, we can conclude that multilingualism is something worth investing into.


References

Bialystok, E. (2009). Bilingualism: The good, the bad, and the indifferent. Language and Cognition, 12(1), 3–11.

Bialystok, E. (2011). Reshaping the mind: The benefits of bilingualism. Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology, 65(4), 229–235.

 

What are the advantages of bilingualism?

Published on 6 June 2014

 

Bilingualism doesn't only bring social advantages. Research has shown that it is also "good for the brain"!

Compared to monolingual children, bilingual children have a better spontaneous understanding of how language works and find it easier to learn other languages, tend to be more precocious readers, have an earlier understanding that people may have different points of view from their own, and are better at focusing attention and at switching between different tasks. There are also some indications that bilingualism may offer some protection against the decline of cognitive abilities in old age.

These benefits are in principle given by bilingualism in any languages, regardless of their status.

Contact

 

Bilingualism Matters was founded by Professor Antonella Sorace at the University of Edinburgh.

 

Bilingualism Matters@Rijeka has been established within the „Advancing the European Multilingual Experience (AThEME)” project.

 

This project has received funding from the European Union's Seventh Framework Programme for research, technological development and demonstration under grant agreement no. 613465.