Bilingual = Smarter


SPEAKING two languages rather than just one has obvious practical benefits in an increasingly globalized world. But in recent years, scientists have begun to show that the advantages of bilingualism are even more fundamental than being able to converse with a wider range of people. Being bilingual, it turns out, makes you smarter. It can have a profound effect on your brain, improving cognitive skills not related to language and even shielding against dementia in old age.

This view of bilingualism is remarkably different from the understanding of bilingualism through much of the 20th century. Researchers, educators and policy makers long considered a second language to be an interference, cognitively speaking, that hindered a child’s academic and intellectual development.

They were not wrong about the interference: there is ample evidence that in a bilingual’s brain both language systems are active even when he is using only one language, thus creating situations in which one system obstructs the other. But this interference, researchers are finding out, isn’t so much a handicap as a blessing in disguise. It forces the brain to resolve internal conflict, giving the mind a workout that strengthens its cognitive muscles….

The collective evidence from a number of such studies suggests that the bilingual experience improves the brain’s so-called executive function — a command system that directs the attention processes that we use for planning, solving problems and performing various other mentally demanding tasks. These processes include ignoring distractions to stay focused, switching attention willfully from one thing to another and holding information in mind — like remembering a sequence of directions while driving….

The key difference between bilinguals and monolinguals may be more basic: a heightened ability to monitor the environment. “Bilinguals have to switch languages quite often — you may talk to your father in one language and to your mother in another language,” says Albert Costa, a researcher at the University of Pompea Fabra in Spain. “It requires keeping track of changes around you in the same way that we monitor our surroundings when driving.” In a study comparing German-Italian bilinguals with Italian monolinguals on monitoring tasks, Mr. Costa and his colleagues found that the bilingual subjects not only performed better, but they also did so with less activity in parts of the brain involved in monitoring, indicating that they were more efficient at it.


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  • Joe Canner

    The primary beneficiaries of this, of course, are kids that are raised in bilingual homes, whether because there are two different languages in the home or whether there is one language at home and a different one outside.

    However, research like this (which has been around for a number of years) has motivated the founding of a number of bilingual schools around the country (and around the world) where kids who would otherwise be monolingual can learn in two languages. One of the key features of such schools is that the second language is not just a class of its own, but is the language of instruction for other classes (e.g., social studies, math, science). In other words, partial immersion, as it would be if you grew up with two languages.

  • PLTK

    My three are in a Chinese partial immersion school–who wouldn’t want their kids to have the opportunity to learn a 2nd language while young? Most research also indicates that all students do as well in immersion programs as in regular programs (even students with learning disabilities will generally do as well as they would in a regular program) and any initial problems with the home language are generally made up within a few years (although initial English reading and writing skill development might be delayed, but late elementary these skills catch up).

    In our case, since our youngest is adopted from China, we also appreciate the opportunity to help her build good cultural connections with her birth county.

  • Rob Grayson

    As commenter #1 intimated, this has been well known for a good number of years. I took my degree in French and Linguistics 20 years ago, and studied multilingualism in some depth. There was plenty of well-documented research showing the cognitive benefits of multilingualism. In particular, it appears that kids who grow up with more than one language develop more extensive creative thinking skills.

  • Percival

    It’s not mentioned here, but I think the increased IQ is only correlated with people who learn 2 languages as children. Alas.

  • Megan

    One of my biggest concerns in our family moving to a foreign mission field was knowing how to raise our children there. Articles like this make me smile. Our oldest (5 years old) is bilingual, and I love the last paragraph because she amazes me when she knows who to speak to in English and who to speak to in Spanish. She has a 2 year old sister speaking a lot of Spanglish right now and a little brother that will be fully immersed as well. Blessing in disguise.

  • Val

    My kids are in French Immersion, and this is just a bonus. I feel it is one of North America’s greatest handicaps, raising monolingual kids. A second language also helps people learn a third language much more quickly, so it doesn’t matter if they don’t “need” French (or whichever immersion language is offered) in adult life.

    I am fortunate to live in a country (Canada) with free public language immersion, and it has been around since the 1970s, so my kids aren’t guinea pigs and there are many resources available for guided reading, etc. The problem with an immersion program for a new language (Chinese and Punjabi in my area) is a lack of second-langugae resources and experience, but that would still be preferable to no second language.

  • C
  • Rick

    Our oldest (almost 5) just got accepted to our local Spanish Immersion program. We are incredibly excited about this opportunity.

  • Robert

    We speak English most of the time these days, but when the kids came, they only spoke Krio, I spoke English and a little Krio, and my wife spoke English, Krio and Madingo. The kids insisted I speak English all the time so they could learn, and ridiculed my attempts at Krio. So we’d have a conversation with one end in one language, and the other in a different one, or start a sentence in one language and finish in another. Anyone listening to us got totally confused, but we always knew where we were.

  • TriciaM

    For your amusement and amazement. Keep an eye on the upper left corner for which language he is speaking.

  • DRT

    Percival, at what age do you think is too late? For instance, my 16 year old daughter has been in Latin for several years. Is middle/high school no longer a child?

  • My husband was fluent in 4 different languages by the time he was 11 years old. In a nationwide management seminar he was sent to by one of his employers, all the attendees were tested for listening skills. He tested higher than any other attender, ever. He also picks up social & nonverbal cues better than almost anyone I know. I’ve long considered that these characteristics, which aren’t noticeable in his parents, were due to his emigrating from 1 country where his family spoke 2 languages, to another country where 2 completely other languages were taught by immersion in his schools. In addition, he also picked up a smattering of tribal languages through various friends.

    There was a remarkable shift I noticed in my own brain’s abilities when we lived in Europe & traveled from country to country. Massimo said that it was typical for him to have this experience, once I had had it myself. (It was so usual for him that he didn’t realize it, in other words.) I’d studied French & German in school, the former for more than 6 years. Then, I learned Italian when we lived in Italy. I recall being in Switzerland and realizing that I knew what some folks were talking about even though I couldn’t directly translate the language, much less speak it – it may have been Swiss-German or Austrian German. It was the weirdest feeling to “know” and not to be able to think “why I know this”. Since that time, I’ve met other multilingual folks who’ve also experienced this same disconnect between conscious knowledge and unconscious knowledge.

  • derek

    I grew up in Argentina with missionary parents. I learned Spanish and English at the same time. I consider being bilingual a great blessing.
    Whn my family moved to our current home we found out that the elementary school where my kids attend had bilingual (English,Spanish) classes. We tried to sign my daughter up and were told it was impossible because there is a very long waiting list that you have to get on before kindergarten. I asked why aren’t there more bilingual classes if they are so popular? Turns out that they are controversial. Quite a few people in our area are ‘English only in the classroom’. Short sighted and sad in my opinion!

  • Percival

    I’m not sure I have a good complete answer for you. The benefits of learning other languages are not limited to boosting IQ. (That is true for learning music as well, by the way.) Basically, the way adults and children learn languages is different. Lateralization of the brain starts to occur with the onset of puberty. The elasticity of the brain is affected. Native-like pronunciation is affected. The ability to understand rapid speech is affected.

    However, a 16-year old can certainly learn another language well if they are motivated to do so. Because she is learning Latin, a dead language, she does not have to worry about native-like pronunciation and comprehension of the rapid speech of native speakers. I’d say she’s good to go and will reap many benefits form her study. In addition, each language she learns makes the next language easier to learn.

  • Hector_St_Clare

    I’m a big believer in official bilingualism in this country. New Mexico is about to become majority Hispanophone within the next couple years, and that trend is going to affect other states soon as well. Native Spanish speakers deserve as much cultural representation and economic opportunity in America as everyone else.

    Christians really need to get rid of our association with cultural nationalism. Just because we are called to be ‘conservative’ on abortion rights or some other issues doesn’t mean that we should ally ourselves with other social-conservative issues like limiting immigration, English only, etc. Christianity is a universal religion that is supposed to transcend the nation state and individual cultures.

  • My wife is from Mexico, and I’m a Gringo who learned some Spanish in elementary and high school, becoming fluent after marriage. Our 12-year-old was interpreting Spanish and English when she was 3. She is a straight-A student up through her current year in the 6th grade. Our 5-year-old doesn’t speak much Spanish (we had to have her in speech therapy for articulation just to get her ready for kindergarten in English), but she comprehends it perfectly. They both pick things up quickly, and I think it has to do with the fact that their brains had to handle both languages since infancy.


    So, for the children (under 10-11 years old), if they learn 2 foreign languages (i.e they use 3 languages). Is it good for this ? Should they learn the second foreign language ? Or is the first foreign language enough ?

  • Phong,

    I’d say the more, the better. I went to college with a girl from Spain who was 20 and spoke 6 languages: Castilian Spanish, Catalán, French, Russian, Japanese, and English.