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The Neurological Benefits of Being Bilingual

I first learned Spanish for selfish reasons: people kept telling me that learning another language was a good way of being more employable.

Though increased employability, more open-mindedness, and more travel opportunities are great practical and behavioral reasons to learn another language, it turns out there are multiple neurological benefits of being bilingual. And since our brain is really the epicenter of us, it’s always good to heed its benefits:

  • Increased memory capacity via the hippocampus and cerebral cortex
  • Increased grey matter
  • Larger Broca’s area
  • Better focus and concentration
  • Better at task-switching

Let’s start at the beginning: the hippocampi (one on both sides of the brain) are associated with the limbic system, which is the region that regulates emotions, as well as with long-term memory. The cerebral cortex makes up the outermost layer that surrounds the brain. Its main responsibility is for higher thought processes, like speech and decision-making. The cortex itself is divided into four different lobes: the frontal, parietal, temporal, and occipital.

Increased grey matter means that the brain has more neuronal cell bodies. Grey matter includes brain regions involved in muscle control, seeing, hearing, memory, emotions, speech, decision-making, and self-control.

Broca’s area is named after Pierre Paul Broca, who found the link between this region in the frontal lobe linked to speech production and language processing. In technical terms, think of Broca’s area as the server farm for language!

Last but certainly not least, Dr. Thomas Back at the University of Edinburgh did a study that proved in general, bilinguals or multilinguals performed better on attention tests and had better concentration than monolingual students. This was confirmed by Agnes Kovacs of the International School for Advanced Studies in Trieste, Italy, who did a study of infants raised with two languages and infants raised with one language since birth. Those raised with two languages displayed “improved cognitive control abilities” compared to their monolingual counterparts.

Sources:

  • Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, “Cognitive gains in 7-month-old bilingual infants”. https://www.pnas.org/content/106/16/6556
  • US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health “Does Bilingualism Influence Cognitive Aging?”. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4320748/
  • The BBC Science Focus Magazine. “What happens in our brain when we learn languages?”. https://www.sciencefocus.com/the-human-body/what-happens-in-our-brain-when-we-learn-languages/
  • Science Direct, “Broca’s Area”. https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/neuroscience/brocas-area
  • Neuroscientifically Challenged blog, “Know your brain: Hippocampus” and “Know your brain: cerebral cortex”. https://neuroscientificallychallenged.com/blog/
  • Europe Language Jobs Blog, “Brain Benefits and Other Advantages of Learning Foreign Languages”. https://www.europelanguagejobs.com/blog/brain-benefits-and-other-advantages-of-learning-foreign-languages
  • The Guardian, “What happens in the brain when you learn a language?”. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2014/sep/04/what-happens-to-the-brain-language-learning

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Megan Miller
Megan Millerhttps://www.aprovecharlanguagesolutions.com/
As one enamored with deep thinking and deep conversations, Megan Miller shares her findings and experiences as a word nerd and language lover worldwide. With more than 2 decades of Spanish under her belt, Megan has experienced firsthand the benefits of bilingualism. Megan is the founder and owner of Aprovechar Language Solutions, a translation and Spanish/English language coaching business that focuses on mindset, habit, and real-world examples to improve people’s confidence and comfortability in speaking and communicating. When she’s not coaching or translating, Megan uses her communication skills as an IT Project Manager to produce technological solutions and likes to travel and bake in her free time

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CONVERSATIONS

  1. Tak, Thank you, Danke, Merci, Gracias in that order. (Apologies for missing special characters.)

    So glad that your work – even if it was for selfish reasons – gave you many more upsides than just the ability to order from the menu in passable local dialect, Megan.

    Supposedly, the “improved cognitive control abilities” comes from the brain constantly checking in with itself whether is is supposed to function in one language or another. This checking in assures that there is blood flowing to the neocortex even when it might otherwise prefer to primarily support the fight-or-flight system.

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