Updated: Oct 12, 2021
It’s clear that being fluent in a second language is advantageous in today’s world. Bilingual individuals benefit from better-paying jobs, opportunities to experience culture in exciting, authentic ways, and their abilities to communicate better with people. But there is a myriad of evidence that suggests that bilingualism impacts a person even more profoundly! Multiple studies have indicated that there are health-related and cognitive benefits associated with the ability to speak a second language fluently.
The extent of the advantages of the bilingual mind is yet to be discovered!
The first advantage involves what is broadly described as “executive function”. This term, as defined by Ramin Skibba, refers to “skills that allow you to control, direct and manage your attention, as well as your ability to plan”. Bilingual individuals also have the ability to discern between important information and irrelevant information, allowing them to focus in what is essential. This happens because languages are automatically and unconsciously processed by the brain. For this reason, the bilingual person is constantly experiencing “interference”; the individual must decide minute by minute what language he or she must use, depending on the situation.
The area of the brain that accomplishes this is the same area of the brain that people use when completing a task while experiencing distraction. Several studies have also demonstrated that the “bilingual experience” actually “alters the structure” of these areas of the brain.
Because muscle memory is developed from speaking two languages, the individual benefits in many other capacities.
Results from a study measuring gray-matter volumes in monolingual or bilingual undergraduates. Red areas indicate where gray-matter volumes were greater in one group versus the other. In total, study participants who spoke both English and Spanish had greater gray-matter volume compared to participants who spoke only English.
CREDIT: ADAPTED FROM O.A. OLULADE ET AL / CEREBRAL CORTEX 2016
Ramin Skibba also states that a bilingual brain “can compensate for brain deterioration by using alternative brain networks and connections when original pathways have been destroyed.” He states that “cognitive compensation” happens because “bilingualism promotes the health of both gray and white matter.”
There is still not enough evidence to prove that bilingualism could stop dementia or alzheimer's entirely, but several studies have concluded that it delays the symptoms. This is possible because learning and speaking a second language is an incredibly complex brain activity involving speech sounds, syllables, words, grammar, sentences and syntax. All this activity is equivalent to a “brain workout”! The brain is constantly engaging in wide connections, which are the same connections that are damaged when it begins to experience aging.
MacLean Fitzgerald says that “The mean age for the first signs of dementia in monolingual adults is 71.4 and for bilingual it is 75.5.”
Without a doubt bilingualism has more benefits than we can imagine, and it is never late to learn a second language. For a long time people believed that learning a second language “well” was not possible after adolescence, and that late learners would experience great challenges when it comes to pronunciation, memorization, and speech fluency. If you have ever been discouraged by these beliefs before, don’t despair! There is good news for you according to Scott Chacon, who writes in his article titled “MIT Scientists prove adults learn language to fluency nearly as well as children“: ““Studies that compare children and adults exposed to comparable material in the lab or during the initial months of an immersion program show that adults perform better, not worse, than children (Huang, 2015; Krashen, Long, & Scarcella, 1979; Snow & Hoefnagel-Höhle, 1978), perhaps because they deploy conscious strategies and transfer what they know about their first language.” — from A Critical Period”. Today we have access to incredible new technology, as well as learning strategies. This is the reason why people of all ages are able to achieve high levels of proficiency.
The only thing stopping you from learning a second language is the time and the effort you are willing to invest. We at Language Matters want to encourage people to become bilingual, change their lives, and start experiencing the benefits of bilingualism!.
Fitzgerald, M. L., & Fitzgerald, M. L. (2017, May 22). Brain Benefits of Bilingualism. Retrieved from https://brainconnection.brainhq.com/2017/05/22/brain-benefits-bilingualism/
How a second language can boost the brain. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.knowablemagazine.org/article/mind/2018/how-second-language-can-boost-brain?gclid=CjwKCAjwwYP2BRBGEiwAkoBpAnPVQcMIHgFBZa1IeOA9x_R6gu4eZ7OfHPl1cK7IJJ6mXKVRaTuBORoCmT8QAvD_BwE
Chacon, S. (2019, May 12). MIT Scientists prove adults learn language to fluency nearly as well as children. Retrieved from https://medium.com/@chacon/mit-scientists-prove-adults-learn-language-to-fluency-nearly-as-well-as-children-1de888d1d45f