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Bilingualism makes you smart and efficient – new research

10 November 20150 comments

Speaking two or more languages regularly can make you smarter, more efficient and better able to learn, according to new research.

Researcher Dr Christos Pliatsikas of the University of Kent, in the UK, led a team which looked into the general benefits of additional language learning and the importance of language learning.

Bilingualism makes brains more efficient

Bilingualism makes brains more efficient

The study titled ‘The effects of bilingualism on the white matter structure of the brain’, found more evidence that bilingualism can affect how the brain works in positive ways.

“There is increasing evidence that bilingualism can affect how the brain works. Older, lifelong bilinguals have demonstrated better cognitive skills in tasks that require increased cognitive control,” Dr Pliatsikas said.

“These cognitive effects are most pronounced in bilingual people who speak two languages in their everyday life for many years, compared to those who speak a second language but don’t use it often.

“Our new research has now highlighted the structural improvements on the brain observed in bilingual people who immerse themselves in two languages,” he said.

Dr Pliatsikas said bilingualism affected the structure of the brain including both major types of brain tissue – the grey matter and the white matter.

“Bilingualism has been shown to increase the volume of grey matter in several brain areas that are usually connected to language learning and processing,” he said.

“These effects suggest that the brain is capable of restructuring itself as a response to learning an additional language, but also as a response to the equally important task of juggling between two languages – using one language while suppressing the other at any given time,” Dr Pliatsikas said.

He said bilingualism makes brains more efficient.

“One way for the white matter to become more efficient is to increase its “insulation”, the myelin, making the transfer of information faster and with fewer losses. It has been shown that bilinguals demonstrate increased integrity, or thickness of the myelin – known as “myelination” – compared to monolinguals,” Dr Pliatsikas said.

“We tested 20 young bilinguals with an average age of 30-years-old who had lived in the UK for at least 13 months and were highly-proficient and active users of English as a second language, but were not undergoing any language training at the time,” he said.

The participants were young, highly-proficient “immersed” bilinguals and these were compared to 25 monolingual adults of the same age and educational level.

The two groups were scanned with an MRI technique called diffusion tensor imaging, which uses the movement of water molecules in the brain as an indicator for white matter integrity. A freer movement of the water molecules indicates less integrity.

“What we found was that compared to monolingual adults of a similar age, our bilinguals demonstrated greater white matter integrity in a number of regions of the brain related to language processing. This closely corresponded to the effects on the brain for early and older bilinguals,” Dr Pliatsikas said.

The findings further support the idea that bilingualism “reshapes” the brain, but also suggests that bilingual immersion is a crucial factor in the process. In other words, it is possible that the better preservation of brain structure that has been reported in older bilinguals is simply an effect of continuously using the two languages.


Skye Doyle
AMES Australia Staff Writer