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Two is Better than One – The Cognitive Implications of Bilingualism

Submitted by on April 22, 2013 – 9:10 PM 2 Comments

18GRAY-articleLarge-v2Think knowing more than one language is a disadvantage? Well I would not be surprised if you replied with a ‘no’. Of course knowing more languages in today’s diverse and globalized world comes in handy. However, apart from linguistic and cultural benefits which arise as a result of knowing more languages, research on language development and usage states that being a bilingual has severe cognitive implications as well.


Bilingualism for the purpose of this blog can be defined as the ability to speak two languages colloquially. One of the earliest researches to highlight the cognitive influence of being a bilingual was Leopold who after observing his daughter stated that being a bilingual gave her greater flexibility in the use of language. Worrall later on designed a study to implement and replicate Leopold’s claims.


She tested two groups of children, ages 4-6 and 6-9 with semantic and phonetic preferences for words. For example, participants had to decide which word ‘can’ (a phonetic similar word) or ‘hat’ (a semantic related word) was close to the target word ‘cap’. The results of this study indicated that although there was no significant difference between the understanding of the words between monolingual and bilingual children, 54% of the younger bilingual children consistently shared a semantic preference in contrast to their monolingual peers.


In monolingual children, semantic preference increased with age suggesting that bilingual children reach a stage of semantic development 2-3 years earlier than their monolingual peers. Recent research has found similar results using electrophysiology of the brain and suggests that bilinguals are actively inferring language in a facilitatory way, highlighting cognitive implications of linguistic processing in the brain.


Perhaps one of the main cognitive influences of being a bilingual is the fact that they have better executive functions (attention, inhibition and control) compared to monolinguals. One could argue (much like the chicken and egg question, about who came first) that having better executive functions cause the development of two languages and not vice versa. However, there exists research that clearly highlights the fact that the ability to speak two languages is the key to having better executive functions in this case, and not the other way around.


One of the lead researchers in this area is Bialystok who proposed that compared to monolinguals; bilinguals perform significantly better in tasks that demand high levels of control (card sorting tasks, re-call tasks, etc.), suggesting that bilinguals can direct selective attention to relative stimuli and ignore the ones that are unnecessary. This finding was found irrespective of age, suggesting that bilinguals have a cognitive advantage over their monolingual peers since a very early age.


So the question remains that why do bilinguals have such cognitive advantages? The answer that fits observable data most neatly lies in the way that bilinguals use language. Because bilinguals need to be aware of either of the languages they speak in, in a given situation; they need to control usage of the language they currently speak and inhibit the other language they are not speaking in, at that moment. Hence in such situations of conflict and distractions, the bilingual brain attenuates itself and directs language appropriately.


Furthermore, Bialystok has also observed that older bilingual adults also show a cognitive advantage suggesting that cognitive advantages of bilingualism last robustly, well into old age as well. In a task called the Simon task, researchers found that old bilinguals had better inhibiting abilities compared to their monolingual counterparts.


Recent research aims to try and seek the effects of ageing and how bilingualism can act as a shield from Alzheimer’s disease, slowing down the onset and progression of the disease. Using Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and other neuroimaging techniques, researchers have found that bilingualism correlates (positive) significantly with slower onset of the disease compared to normal ageing controls that are monolinguals.


These protective cognitive functions in bilinguals are called Cognitive Reserves and guard the brain from neurodegenerative disorders and cognitive losses that are seen in typical ageing adults. This in turn implies that knowing more than one language can turn out to be a ‘good exercise’ for the brain, which can be useful in the future. In addition, bilingualism can potentially be one of the main determinants to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease.


Lastly, being bilingual has cognitive implications in the domain of perception as well. A review of literature highlights the fact that bilingualism has an additive effect on one’s mental capacity by enhancing their flexibility in thinking and solving problems, and improves the way one perceives and manipulates situations in a different way, compared to monolinguals. Again, this arises as a result of how bilinguals select attention and use their thoughts to understand and process more than one language simultaneously.


So, if you know how to speak more than one language, congratulations! You might not realize how important this ability is for your brain. So here is a summary. This ability gives you a serious advantage over those who only speak one language in terms of attention, better control, and flexibility in thought and above all, it may be one of the reasons why you could still function properly at old age, in the future. Two may indeed be better than one. Let me get old someday and test it for myself. Maybe!



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  • Michelle May

    Hi Rehan, again, I find your article absolutely interesting. I’m multi lingual (English, Malay and Chinese) and sometimes, the worst part of being multi lingual is that, I’m just lost for words because I can’t express myself, or find the appropriate language to express myself and feeling frustrated.

    Besides that, I have to mentally translate what I want to say and sometimes, one would call it, lost in translation. I believe that being bilingual is an advantage, but on the other hand, i’m also interested in the disadvantages (If any!) and how it works, meaning, do bilinguals think the same way as monolinguals?
    Keep up the good job!!! :)

    • Rehan Rehman

      Thanks for the comments Michelle. There are both advantages and disadvantages, (like any other phenomenon observed in Psychology) for being bi/multi lingual. One of the disadvantages like you mentioned is the fact that people who speak more than one language sometimes feel hard to find appropriate words to use – a phenomenon formally called ‘tip of the tongue’. One has the words in thought but cannot articulate it in spoken language, that is it is on the tip of one’s tongue.

      Also, in my personal opinion, the mental translation process that you just mentioned might be one of the reasons to drive cognition in old age. Having a so called ‘internal representation’ of anything and using imagery/self-verbal processes to rehearse and translate it uses certain brain areas in a specific way. It is like giving exercise to your brain. The more you exercise, the better.

      Bilinguals do not think the same was a monolinguals (I highlighted this in the last section of this article – see perception and problem solving). I guess there needs to be more research done in order to further broaden horizons in this field. Keep posted for more articles :)