Having the ability to speak more than one language is probably one of the most important skills you can have today, with the growing rise of what is known as the ‘global village’ and the constant meeting of different cultures. Not only can it give you a massive advantage in the process of working with people and when you’re trying to forge new intercultural relationships, but studies are now also showing that the effect being bilingual has on your brain is very beneficial.

Benefits of Being Bilingual

It’s like exercise for your brain

When you are switching between two or more languages for a period of time, your brain is doing the equivalent of a gymnastics performance, because it is working to process information coming at it in different forms and provide output in the correct context. To do so successfully, it has to take into account different grammatical rules, pronunciations, expressions that work in one language but not another, and certain words that simply won’t translate well. For those who were born into families where the parents communicated in two languages from the start, or where they were taught more than one language from a young age, all this happens without the person even thinking about it – with research now showing that babies can even pick this up in utero.

That is because their brain is wired differently from those of monolinguals, even from a development standpoint. These people also tend to have the ability to add additional languages with ease, because their brain is well accustomed to the idea that communication takes place in more than one language. Think of it like a high-way. When you are monolingual, you can drive in one lane only, and your brain has difficulty visualizing other lanes. But when you are able to converse in more than one language (especially from a young age), the other lanes open up to you, and you can move between the different lanes with ease.

The study

According to Pennsylvania State University cognitive scientist Judith F. Kroll, when you are bilingual, you have two ‘switches’ in your brain that are always on. You cannot turn one off, and your brain is wired to always process information in both languages. As for the monolinguals who want to learn another language, not to worry, the mental effort it takes to switch between two ‘tongues’ will eventually reshape your brain’s networks as well. One of the studies compared the results of 120 infants and the way language affects the way humans operate, even at a young age. They looked at four-month old, eight-month old, and one-year old babies, of whom 60 were bilingual and 60 monolingual.

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The results

The research indicated that as the infants grew older, the ones who routinely listened to two languages – Spanish and Catalan in this case – began to look at the speaker’s mouth instead of their eyes when they were listening to someone speak. On the other hand, the babies who were exposed to only one language only looked at mouths more than eyes when someone was speaking their mother tongue. Kroll explained to Quartz that this study was a prime indicator of how multiple languages can enhance a person’s cognitive abilities. “Babies who are listening to two languages [growing up] become attuned to those two languages right away,” she said. “It’s not confusing them or messing them up developmentally – the opposite is true.”

If you want to ensure your children grow up with a brain wired to be bilingual, or want this for yourself, this can easily be accomplished. Even if you don’t speak two languages in the house, you can listen to music that features foreign languages. French café music, or Italian ballads, for example, makes for great background music that the whole family can enjoy. Foreign language movies are a great way to do this as well, and you will learn parts of the language yourself while enjoying them.

Johane du Toit

Johane du Toit

Johané du Toit is the Health Writer at Longevity Magazine. With an Honours degree in journalism from the North-West University at Potchefstroom, she has a keen interest in medical and scientific innovations and aspires to provide the public with the latest reliable news in the fields of medicine, fitness, wellness, and science. Johane is happiest outdoors, preferably near a large body of water or in the mountains, and loves waterskiing, cooking, travelling and reading.

The content in this editorial is for general information only and is not intended to provide medical or other professional advice. For more information on your medical condition and treatment options, speak to your healthcare professional.