Being bilingual, achieving fluency in two languages, is a form of mental exercise that can strengthen your brain by enhancing brain power and improving brain health.
A Growing Number of People are Bilingual
Speaking more than one language and living a bilingual lifestyle is becoming increasingly common. Approximately 20 percent of Americans now speak a non-English language at home, and as many as two-thirds of children worldwide grow up bilingual.
People who are not bilingual sometimes think that being fluent in two languages, or growing up learning and speaking two languages, must be confusing. But psychologists say there is no evidence to that effect, and that babies of bilingual mothers can distinguish between languages within hours after they are born.
According to a growing body of research, not only does speaking two languages not confuse people or slow their learning in other areas, it may actually improve your brain—carrying benefits that go far beyond communication.
How Being Bilingual Can Improve Your Brain
According to Ellen Bialystok, an internationally known psychologist and distinguished research professor at York University in Toronto, there is overwhelming evidence that being truly bilingual—speaking two languages and using them regularly—will improve your brain. For bilingual people, both languages are "always on," always active in their brains, no matter which language they are speaking at the moment.
"The evidence is very dramatic," Bialystok said in an interview with National Public Radio. "Even if you are in a context that is utterly monolingual, where you think there is absolutely no reason to think about Chinese or Spanish or French, it is part of the activated network that's going on in your brain."
As a result, people who are bilingual have to keep their two languages separate, paying attention only to the one they need when they need it.
"The brain has a perfectly good system whose job it is to do just that—it's the executive control system," Bialystok said in the same interview. "It focuses attention on what's important and ignores distraction. Therefore, for a bilingual, the executive control system is used in every sentence you utter. That's what makes it strong."
Being Bilingual Has Many Benefits
Some researchers, including Bialystok, believe that the mental exercise of constantly using the brain's executive control function can improve your brain and provide significant benefits.
Research has shown that people who are bilingual perform better on a variety of cognitive tasks, and one study by Bialystok found that dementia occurred four or five years later among people who spent their lives speaking two languages compared to those who spoke only one.
According to Bialystok, who received the prestigious Killam Prize for her research in 2010, there is even preliminary evidence that being bilingual can improve your brain by causing valuable changes in brain structure: speaking two languages can cause actual physical changes in the brain that result in better cognition and brain health.