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The Bilingual Brain Advantage

Language does not manifest in the brain the same as other skills or abilities, and is not limited to one lobe. Language processing consists of many skills, including speech formation, syntax, and comprehension, and they are scattered throughout the brain.

Bilingual brains are even visually different from monolingual ones. When scans were taken of bilingual brains, researchers found “detectable growth in the hippocampus, which helps govern memory and mastery of new material, and in three areas of the cerebral cortex, where higher-order reasoning is processed,” and “healthier myelin in the frontal lobes and corpus callosum – the neural cable that connects the two hemispheres of the brain.”

But why are bilingual brains so different, especially those brains that are bilingual from birth?

Even before they are born, babies are hearing and absorbing language. Scientists have determined that babies can hear within the womb and learn to recognize their mothers’ language rhythms from the third trimester on. When babies are born, they can then recognize the languages spoken by their mother and distinguish them from other languages. Researchers determined this by playing language recordings for newborns and recording how they would suck at their pacifiers. When babies heard their mothers’ native tongue, they sucked more contentedly, indicating that they were stimulated by their environment. Bilingual babies responded positively to both of the languages that their mothers spoke.

But bilingual babies have more advanced abilities than just recognizing languages. People who are bilingual from birth are able to use less energy to process complicated multitasking than monolinguals. For example, monolingual and bilingual participants were given a test to name the color of the text rather than reading the color word (e.g., a green “orange;” green would be the answer). The results concluded that “almost universally, bilinguals are faster and make fewer mistakes than monolinguals.”

All of our interpreters at CyraCom are completely bilingual, and many of them have been bilingual since birth or early childhood. Their bilingual brains have only aided them in a profession that requires high levels of brain function and includes constant multitasking – listening, note-taking, memorizing, analyzing, interpreting into their native language and then interpreting into a secondary language – and often for hours at a time. To read more about the skills needed by an interpreter, see our other blog post on the subject here.

Finally, as multilinguals age, they retain their cognitive faculties longer, delaying the onset of dementia for on average 4.1 years, and even full-blown Alzheimer’s disease for about 5.1 years. While scientists do agree that it “couldn’t hurt” for monolinguals to start learning languages later in life to delay Alzheimer’s and dementia, it is the lifelong multilingual who benefits the most.

Kluger, Jeffrey. “The Power of the Bilingual Brain.” Time 29 July 2013: 42-47. Print.

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