Bilingual individuals can outperform monolinguals in certain mental abilities, including tuning out irrelevant information and focusing on what’s important, according to new research. This makes them stronger at prioritizing tasks and handling multiple projects at once.
“We would probably refer to most of these cognitive advantages as multi-tasking,” said Dr. Judith Kroll, a distinguished professor of psychology at Penn State University. “Bilinguals seem to be better at this type of perspective-taking.”
Kroll, who is also director of the Center for Language Science, noted that these findings contradict past conclusions that bilingualism interfered with cognitive development.
“The received wisdom was that bilingualism created confusion, especially in children,” said Kroll. “The belief was that people who could speak two or more languages had difficulty using either. The bottom line is that bilingualism is good for you.”
Bilinguals must mentally negotiate between the languages, a skill that Kroll calls “mental juggling.” For example, two same-language bilinguals can easily slip in and out of both languages during their conversation, often choosing the word or phrase from the language that best expresses their thoughts. Rarely, however, do fluent bilinguals make the mistake of speaking another language to a person who understands only one language.
“The important thing that we have found is that both languages are open for bilinguals; in other words, there are alternatives available in both languages,” Kroll said. “Even though language choices may be on the tip of their tongue, bilinguals rarely make a wrong choice.”
According to Kroll, this language selection, or switching, is a type of mental exercise.
“The bilingual is somehow able to negotiate between the competition of the languages,” Kroll said. “The speculation is that these cognitive skills come from this juggling of languages.”
These benefits cover all age groups, according to Dr. Ellen Bialystok of York University, Toronto, who has long studied bilingualism across the lifespan. Research on children who have grown up bilingual show they are often stronger than monolingual children at perspective-taking tasks, such as prioritizing.
Studies on older bilingual individuals have revealed that speaking more than one language may actually protect them from problems associated with age, including Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
MRIs, electroencephalographs, and eye-movement devices have been used during studies to observe how the brain or eyes work while juggling languages. As a person reads, the eyes jump through the sentence, pausing to comprehend words or phrases. These distinct eye movements can offer clues into the subtle language comprehension differences between bilinguals and monolinguals.
Kroll added that although bilinguals have certain enhanced brain functions, juggling more than one language doesn’t necessarily make a person more intelligent or a better learner.
“Bilinguals simply acquire specific types of expertise that help them attend to critical tasks and ignore irrelevant information,” Kroll said.
Source: Penn State