This is Your Brain on Bilingualism

We often think of the brain as our main tool in determining what languages we speak and how we learn them, but in many cases our exposure to language as early as three months before we’re born can help shape our neural functioning.

Even in utero, while babies aren’t capable of discerning meaning from language they may hear, as soon as their hearing develops, they are able to determine what intonation a set of words is going to have, and where the emphasis is going to be.  For example, when doing a study between the crying patterns of German versus French infants, researchers found that German crying started off more loudly and got softer, while French crying did the opposite, reflecting the intonation of their families’ respective languages.

Similarly, languages we learn during infancy, even if we don’t consciously remember them into adulthood, remain imprinted in our brains.  MRI scans done on children adopted from different countries have shown that, while unable to understand their previous language, when listening to it spoken, the words activate the left half of their brains, which is the side of the brain dedicated to language.  Conversely, children who had never been exposed to that language processed the words with the right half of their brains, which is reserved for non-verbal sounds.


While this raises questions as to why a brain would retain a language information long after it’s no longer objectively useful, it also suggests that being bilingual has more intrinsic benefits than previously realized.  A recent study has shown that people fluent in more than one language are better at higher level brain functions in general—comparing  two groups of English speakers versus speakers fluent in both English and Spanish, researchers presented participants with four pictures: an object, an object with a similar sounding name, and two unrelated objects.  The participants would then listen to the name of the original object and try to pick it out as quickly as possible from the four photos.  As it turned out, the bilingual group completed the task fastest, and with less activity in the higher level sections of their brains than the control group.

Being bilingual has more intrinsic benefits than previously realized. Tweet: Being bilingual has more intrinsic benefits than previously realized. via @langtrainers

In addition to this, bilingualism can be crucial in keeping our brains active even through old age, often pushing back the effects of Alzheimer’s.  While genetics play a strong role, it has been seen that bilingual people develop signs of Alzheimer’s on average five years later than their monolingual counterparts.

The languages we speak can determine the way we perceive the world around us, our ability to discern colors, our capacity of planning for the future, our sense of our direction, our approach to family, relationships, and gender identity.  To ask whether society determines its language or a language determines its society is truly a chicken-egg situation, and possibly the only answer we’ll ever have is through case studies of individuals and small groups.

If you too want to enjoy higher brain function and decreased risk of dementia, send us an inquiry about learning a second (or third! or fourth!) language, or take a look at one of our free online language level tests to see how good your current language skills are.