Are Bilingual People Smarter?

Does knowing a second language make you smarter?  Studies have shown that yes, bilingual people are in fact slightly smarter, and they have fewer instances of dementia later on in life.  Apparently knowing a second language helps people to work out certain portions of their brain as they filter between two language systems to stay on one.

There is definitely some “interference” when one is fluent in two languages.  In fact, studies have shown that both language parts of the brain are active even when only using one language to speak.  However this interference helps strengthen the brain “muscles.”

This is a stark difference to how bilingualism used to be viewed.  In the past it was thought that knowing and learning two languages would hinder a child’s cognitive development.

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.

Bilinguals, for instance, seem to be more adept than monolinguals at solving certain kinds of mental puzzles. In a 2004 study by the psychologists Ellen Bialystok and Michelle Martin-Rhee, bilingual and monolingual preschoolers were asked to sort blue circles and red squares presented on a computer screen into two digital bins — one marked with a blue square and the other marked with a red circle.

In the first task, the children had to sort the shapes by color, placing blue circles in the bin marked with the blue square and red squares in the bin marked with the red circle. Both groups did this with comparable ease. Next, the children were asked to sort by shape, which was more challenging because it required placing the images in a bin marked with a conflicting color. The bilinguals were quicker at performing this task.   (NY TIMES)

Apparently knowing two languages improves the “executive function” of the brain that is responsible for concentration, planning, and solving problems.

So if you have the opportunity to raise your children in a bilingual environment, then do it!  It will be a blessing later in life, and will enrich their lives greatly.  I know of one native English speaking family that knows a bit of Spanish that is raising two young boys.  They speak to them in English as well as Spanish.  They also travel to Costa Rica on a yearly basis.  These children will grow up with the blessing of knowing Spanish without ever having to break a sweat studying it in a class, and this will be hugely useful to them later in life.

But can learning a new language later in life carry the same benefits?  Studies say yes.  Since certain languages carry representations differently, it can help enhance and work your brain.  For example, English has only one word for the color “blue”.  However Italian has two words to represent light blue (celeste) and dark blue (blu).  Having to discern differences of this sort makes the brain work harder.

If you’re looking to learn a new language, there are many websites out there than can help you to get started.  Your Language Place is a great website that features tips on learning a new language, product reviews, and even some linguistic anthropology thrown in for good measure.

It’s never to late to start learning a new language, and can be a very fun and rewarding experience.