As the world we live in continues to diversify and becomes increasingly connected, individuals who are bilingual or who speak multiple languages seem to have an obvious advantage. But while the ability to communicate with people from different cultures is a huge asset, bilingual children and adults experience some significant health benefits as well.
“From the perspective of brain development, [growing up bilingual] is very beneficial,” Azadeh Aalai, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Montgomery College in Maryland, and author of Understanding Aggression: Psychological Origins & Approaches to Aggressive Behavior, told Saludify. “Our brain has structural plasticity, meaning it changes and adapts based on what we are exposed to in the environment, so learning multiple languages actually serves as an enriching experience that optimizes the capacity of the brain.”
Research on bilingual children
The American Psychiatric Association indicates children who grow up bilingual have an enhanced ability to process sounds and therefore are more likely to pay attention in a learning situation.
The benefits, outlined in a study from Northwestern University, supported previous findings that demonstrated bilingual children showed reduced levels of anxiety, loneliness, and poor self-esteem, as well as a reduction of negative externalizing behaviors such as arguing, fighting, or acting impulsively. According to the experts, part of the reason for lower levels of social stress among bilingual children had to do with the ability to understand and accept the multiple cultures which came along with learning multiple languages.
This ability to have a multicultural understanding—not just an understanding of multiple languages—is what sets bilingual children apart from someone who has learned a second language just to learn it.
“It is hard to quantify mental reward,” explained Aalai, “as this is a subjective concept which likely varies significantly from person to person; however, certainly the experience of exposure to multiple cultures in addition to multiple languages would likely be more enriching than learning multiple languages without exposure to multiple cultures as well.”
But social skills and the ability to accept others are not the only mental health benefits for bilingual children. In fact, growing up bilingual is beneficial well into an individual’s senior years.
Erlanger Turner, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine, explained to Saludify that bilingual people have been found to have enhanced “working memory,” which is a process responsible for manipulating current information so it can be used in active thought.
“Research has consistently shown that bilingual children typically have improved working memory (WM) and executive functioning abilities. These are important cognitive processes involved in learning, comprehension, and planning,” explained Turner. “Declines in WM are typical for many clinical conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and schizophrenia.”
Turner explained that in a recent study in Psychology and Aging by Luo, Craik, and Moreno, they found that bilingual individuals performed better on spatial working memory tasks than monolinguals.
“However, findings were reversed for verbal memory,” he said. “Given this research one might wonder if becoming bilingual might serve as a protective factor against cognitive decline as an older adult.”
Other studies have supported the theory that being bilingual helps prevent cognitive decline. According to a new study published in the January issue of the Journal of Neuroscience, seniors between the ages of 60 and 68 who had spoken two languages for the majority of their lives were faster at switching from one mental task to another compared to monolingual seniors.
“Being bilingual has certain cognitive benefits and boosts the performance of the brain, especially one of the most important areas known as the executive control system,” Ellen Bialystok, a psychologist at York University in Toronto, said at the time of the research.
Brain benefits of being bilingual
“To maintain the relative balance between two languages, the bilingual brain relies on executive functions, a regulatory system of general cognitive abilities that includes processes such as attention and inhibition,” states The DANA Foundation. “Because both of a bilingual person’s language systems are always active and competing, that person uses these control mechanisms every time she or he speaks or listens. This constant practice strengthens the control mechanisms and changes the associated brain regions.”
In addition to providing continual exercise for the brain, being bilingual causes physical changes to the brain, increasing grey matter in the left inferior parietal cortex. White matter, the part of the brain known better known as myelin, also has shown physical changes in bilingual children and adults, suggesting being bilingual not only changes how the brain sends signals but its physical attributes as well.
Health benefits of growing up bilingual
The health benefits of growing up bilingual extend beyond just improved cognitive function into the areas of wellbeing, as bilingual children who experience less social stress are less likely to become involved in dangerous health habits such as alcohol use, drug use, overeating, and risky behavior.
At the root of the benefits, however, is the brain, and the direct cognitive benefits of being bilingual include:
- Improved attention to detail
- Ability to focus on important details
- Early onset of conflict management skills
- Improved memory
- Improved executive control
- Protection against certain illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease
- Lessening of symptoms associated with cognitive decline
- Improved social skills
- Reduced stress
- Reduced risk for depression
“The cognitive and neurological benefits of bilingualism extend from early childhood to old age as the brain more efficiently processes information and staves off cognitive decline,” explained The DANA Foundation. “What’s more, the attention and aging benefits discussed above aren’t exclusive to people who were raised bilingual; they are also seen in people who learn a second language later in life.”
Aalai told Saludify learning a second language as an adult keeps certain neurons in the brain stimulated, which makes an individual less susceptible to cognitive decline as he or she ages.
Is there a negative side of growing up bilingual?
“From the perspective of identity, what we find is that individuals who are bilingual are actually navigating multiple identities,” said Aalai. “What I mean by this is you may actually see individuals respond differently to personality measures or other psychological test based on what language the tests are in. Individual responses tend to conform to the values of the larger culture that language endorses.”
Aalai adds the finding is not necessarily considered negative, but it does offer a look at how language affects an individual’s world perception. She points out previous research has linked Americans’ ethnocentrism (the perception their culture is superior to others’) to being monolingual. Based on that finding, the ability to speak multiple languages may actually lessen reliance on stereotypes; another benefit.