New research shows that being bilingual comes with more advantages than just aiding in travel and expanding a resume. Bilinguals have more grey matter in their brains than the average person.
Specifically, people who speak two languages have a larger executive control region of the brain. This means they perform better on tasks that require attention, inhibition and short-term memory, or collectively termed “executive control”, writes Catherine Griffin for Science World Report.
This research contradicts an old assumption that being bilingual is actually a hindrance in education. It was once thought that learning two vocabularies at once would delay language development and slow learning.
The co-author of the study, Dr. Guinevere Eden from Georgetown University Medical Center, felt there have been inconsistencies in previous research on bilingual advantages, reports Amy Watson for The Scotsman.
“We reasoned that the experience with two languages and the increased need for cognitive control to use them appropriately would result in brain changes in Spanish-English bilinguals when compared with English-speaking monolingual’s. And in fact, the presence of greater grey matter for bilinguals was observed in frontal and parietal brain regions that are involved in executive control,” said Eden.
This study showed that the management of two languages of the same modality is what increased grey matter, as opposed to having a larger vocabulary. This stood in contrast to subjects who were bilingual in English and ASL who did not have similarly altered grey matter.
In another study, it was found that the brain of bilinguals is also more efficient through an increase of insulation called myelin. The increased presence of myelin makes the transfer of information faster with fewer losses, according to Christos Pliatsikas from The Conversation. Bilinguals of all ages have been shown to have thicker myelin, called myelination, compared to monolingual’s.
Research also shows that it makes no difference if the bilingual person is an ‘early bilingual’ –meaning they have spoken two languages their entire life — or if they are ‘late bilinguals’ who learned a second language after age 10. Both early and late bilinguals have changes in both grey and white matter compared to brains of monolinguals.
Findings further support the idea that bilingualism “reshapes” the brain, but also suggest 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, rather than an effect of early language acquisition or lifelong bilingualism.