AGING
November 18, 2014

Bilingual Brains

Learning another language, even later in life, is the best mental exercise there is.

If you are trying to boost your cognitive capacities, learning another language may do more good for your brain than crosswords or other games.

People who speak two languages are constantly exercising their brains, giving one language the “go” while telling the other to “stop.” And all this stop-and-go is like push-ups for the brain, according to a new study.

Researchers had participants listen to a word and then pick a picture of it from four possible choices. For instance, “cloud” might be the spoken word, and then a picture of a cloud and three similar choices, like “clown”, were shown.

Bilingual schoolchildren are better at filtering out extraneous classroom noise than their monolingual peers.

People who spoke only one language had a much harder time with the task than their bilingual counterparts. This may be because the bilingual brain is always having to inhibit one of its languages, which makes it good at filtering out unneeded information.

“It's like a stop light,” study author Viorica Marian said in a news release. “Bilinguals are always giving the green light to one language and red to another. When you have to do that all the time, you get really good at inhibiting the words you don't need.”

Brain scans also showed that monolingual people were working a lot harder on the task than bilingual people. They were in better mental shape, so the filtering was easier for them.

So what’s the real-world significance of being able to pick out pictures in a laboratory task like this? It’s actually an excellent marker for overall cognition, the researchers point out, since we’re constantly having to filter out extraneous information in our daily lives, both at home and at work.

“Inhibitory control is a hallmark of cognition,” said Marian, “Whether we're driving or performing surgery, it's important to focus on what really matters and ignore what doesn't.”

Marian also found, in another study, that bilingual schoolchildren were better at filtering out extraneous classroom noise than their monolingual peers.

Even more significant is the fact that bilingualism has been linked to reduced risk for Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.

A lot of attention has been given to mental games like crosswords and Sudoku, but just speaking a second language may have even more value. “That's the exciting part,” said Marian. “Using another language provides the brain built-in exercise. You don't have to go out of your way to do a puzzle because the brain is already constantly juggling two languages.”

Finally, don’t worry if you didn’t grow up speaking a second language or learn one in grade school. Learning one later in life also seems to offer real value, said Marian, "It's never too late to learn another language. The benefits can be seen even after just one semester of studying."

So sign up for a language course at your local college or community center, or try to learn a new language by book, CD, or online. It certainly can’t hurt: Not only will it impress your friends and family, but it might give your brain a good cognitive workout as well.

The study was carried out by a team at Northwestern University and is published in the journal Brain and Language.
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