The Brain Benefits of Being Bilingual

bilingual benefits

Story at-a-glance -

  • Bilinguals enjoy enhanced cognitive control abilities, more mental flexibility, and improved handling of tasks involving switching, inhibition and conflict monitoring
  • Bilingual older adults have greater cognitive reserve, a protective mechanism that may make your brain better able to cope with disease
  • Being bilingual appears to help ward off cognitive decline including Alzheimer’s disease

By Dr. Mercola

More than half of the world's population is bilingual or multilingual, which means if you only speak one language, you're in the minority. This isn't the case in the U.S., where only about 1 in 4 Americans speak a second language well enough to hold a conversation.1

There are obvious benefits to being bilingual — like the ability to communicate with people from around the world for business or social purposes. In the U.S., most people believe learning a second language is valuable though not necessarily essential.

In other areas of the world, however, numerous languages may be spoken in a small geographic area. And even if your home life doesn't necessitate another language, in today's digitally connected world, your business life might.

This makes multilingualism a very valuable skill. For instance, 722 different languages are spoken in Indonesia, 445 in India and more than 200 in Australia.2 In some areas, children may speak one language at home and be educated in another.

This language acquisition is not only valuable for communication, however — it offers health benefits as well.

How Being Bilingual May Benefit Your Brain

Language is a challenging task for your brain, one that demands even more resources if you're bilingual.

While it was once thought that children growing up with two or more languages may be at a disadvantage, it turns out this mental workout has benefits and may lead your brain to process information more efficiently, even into old age.

For starters, bilingual brains have more grey matter,3 which includes neurons that function in cognition and higher-order cognitive processes. Further, in comparison to monolinguals, bilinguals enjoy:4

  • Enhanced cognitive control abilities
  • More mental flexibility
  • Improved handling of tasks involving switching, inhibition and conflict monitoring

These benefits extend to all ages, from children to older adults. Bilingual children appear to have advantages in visuospatial and verbal working memory compared to monolingual children.5

In the elderly population, being bilingual may offer even more advantages. Research suggests bilingual older adults have greater cognitive reserve, a "protective mechanism that increases the brain's ability to cope with pathology."6

This may be one reason why bilinguals also have delayed onset of cognitive decline (by up to 4.5 years) compared to monolinguals, even for dementia, including Alzheimer's disease.7 In other words, being bilingual appears to help ward off cognitive decline. According to a study published in Neurology:8

" … [L]ifelong bilingualism confers protection against the onset of AD [Alzheimer's disease]. The effect does not appear to be attributable to such possible confounding factors as education, occupational status, or immigration.

Bilingualism thus appears to contribute to cognitive reserve, which acts to compensate for the effects of accumulated neuropathology."

Being Bilingual May Alter Neurological Structures in Your Brain

Bilingual brains show differences from monolingual brains in terms of neuronal activation as well as in their actual structure. There are differences within bilinguals as well, which may be due to the different experiences of the individuals.

For instance, people may learn two languages from birth (simultaneous bilinguals) or they may learn a second language later in life (successive bilingual). Even then, some people switch between the two languages often and are proficient in both while in others one language is dominant.

Among bilinguals with a higher proficiency in a second language and earlier acquisition of that language, grey matter volume in the left inferior parietal cortex is increased. It's thought this may play a role in helping the individual balance between the two languages.

White matter volume also changes in bilingual children and older adults. This suggests being bilingual "not only changes the way neurological structures process information, but also may alter the neurological structures themselves."9

This is according to a report by Viorica Marian, Ph.D., chair of the department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at Northwestern University, and colleague Anthony Shook.10 The report continued:

"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.

What's more, the attention and aging benefits … aren't exclusive to people who were raised bilingual; they are also seen in people who learn a second language later in life.

The enriched cognitive control that comes along with bilingual experience represents just one of the advantages that bilingual people enjoy.

Despite certain linguistic limitations that have been observed in bilinguals (e.g., increased naming difficulty), bilingualism has been associated with improved metalinguistic awareness (the ability to recognize language as a system that can be manipulated and explored), as well as with better memory, visual-spatial skills, and even creativity."

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You Can Still Learn a New Language as an Adult

It's often assumed that learning a second language as a child is easier than learning one as an adult, but this isn't necessarily true. In fact, some linguistic research suggests adults may be better at language learning than children, provided the proper conditions are met.

One advantage that adults have is pre-existing knowledge of language — how to build a sentence, elements of grammar, punctuation and spelling, conceptual understanding of language, all of these skills are still developing in children.

One area where children excel is in pronunciation, as they're more skilled at identifying subtle sound differences. As such, a child will be better able to mimic the sounds of the new language, whereas an adult will have difficulty speaking the language without their native accent.11

However, poor pronunciation is not an indicator of fluency and typically will not get in the way of actual communication. Children also have a lower standard of fluency than adults, who must have a broader knowledge of the language in order to communicate about a broader range of topics.

Children, meanwhile, may learn a language in a school setting or in the home, where they have ample ability to practice. When adults are given similar opportunities, they generally succeed in learning the language.

As The Telegraph reported, "Adults who can't achieve success in language learning, are often the ones who study at home using educational software or apps. Without teacher support, or steady conversation partners, it's easy for study to become unstructured."12

Research published in Frontiers in Psychology continued:13

"In terms of the timing of bilingual experience, while it is true that in general the earlier a second language (L2) is learned, the more likely native-like proficiency will be obtained [i.e., the age of acquisition (AoA) effect …], …  [I]t has now been recognized that very high levels of proficiency in the L2 is possible even when one learns the L2 late in life. 

Even more encouraging is the evidence that the brain shows considerable malleability as a result of language learning experience, so that both functional and neuroanatomical changes can occur across the lifespan."

So if you're an adult who would like to learn a second language, it's not too late. For the best success, you may want to consider taking a class at a community college where you can get regular support and conversation partners as opposed to learning it on your own.

What Else Can Boost Your Brain Health?

Some experts have suggested that the benefits of learning a language come from just that … learning. Indeed, even if you're not interested in learning a new language engaging in other "purposeful and meaningful activities" stimulates your neurological system, counters the effects of stress-related diseases, reduces your risk of dementia and enhances health and well-being.14

A key factor necessary for improving brain function or reversing functional decline is the seriousness of purpose with which you engage in a task. In other words, the task itself can be virtually anything as long as it is important to you, or somehow meaningful or interesting — it must hold your attention.

For instance, one study revealed that craft activities such as quilting and knitting were associated with decreased odds of having mild cognitive impairment.15 Another study found that taking part in "cognitively demanding" activities like learning to quilt or take digital photography enhanced memory function in older adults.16

The key is to find an activity that is mentally stimulating for you. For some this may be learning a new language, for others it may be something different entirely.

Ideally, this should be something that requires your undivided attention and gives you great satisfaction … it should be an activity that you look forward to doing, such as playing a musical instrument, gardening, building model ships, crafting or many others.

If you're serious about improving your memory and your cognitive function, you can also incorporate these three important variables for brain health.

Vitamin D

Activated vitamin D receptors increase nerve growth in your brain, and researchers have also located metabolic pathways for vitamin D in the hippocampus and cerebellum of the brain, areas that are involved in planning, processing of information, and the formation of new memories.

In older adults, research has shown that low vitamin D levels are associated with poorer brain function, and increasing levels may help keep older adults mentally fit. Appropriate sun exposure is all it takes to keep your levels where they need to be for healthy brain function. If this is not an option, a high-quality tanning bed is the next best alternative, followed by a vitamin D3 supplement.

Intermittent Fasting

Contrary to popular belief, the ideal fuel for your brain is not glucose but ketones, which is the fat your body mobilizes when you stop feeding it carbs and introduce coconut oil and other sources of healthy fats into your diet. A one-day fast can help your body to "reset" itself and start to burn fat instead of sugar. Further, it will help you to reduce your overall calorie consumption, which promotes brain cell growth and connectivity.

As part of a healthy lifestyle, however, I prefer an intermittent fasting schedule that simply calls for limiting your eating to a narrower window of time each day. By restricting your eating to a 6 to 8 hour window (try eating only two meals a day, such as breakfast and lunch or lunch and dinner) you effectively fast 16 to 18 hours each day.

Gut Health

Your gut is your "second brain," and your gut bacteria transmits information to your brain via the vagus nerve, the tenth cranial nerve that runs from your brain stem into your enteric nervous system (the nervous system of your gastrointestinal tract).

There is a close connection between abnormal gut flora and abnormal brain development, and just as you have neurons in your brain, you also have neurons in your gut — including neurons that produce neurotransmitters like serotonin, which is also found in your brain and is linked to mood.

Quite simply, your gut health can impact your brain function, psyche, and behavior, as they are interconnected and interdependent in a number of different ways. In addition to avoiding sugar, one of the best ways to support gut health is to consume beneficial bacteria.

You can use a probiotic supplement for this, but I'm particularly fond of using fermented vegetables, because they can deliver extraordinarily high levels of beneficial bacteria.

Most people aren't aware that in a healthy serving of sauerkraut — two to three ounces or so — you're getting the equivalent of nearly 100 capsules of the highest-potency probiotic you can buy. It's clearly one of the most cost-effective alternatives.