You probably already know that there are a lot of practical benefits to speaking more than one language: you can communicate with people from different backgrounds, earn more money, and travel more independently. In addition to these easy-to-see perks, though, science has found increasing evidence of the cognitive benefits of bilingualism.
The term “executive function” gets thrown around frequently when it comes to the positive effects of bilingualism. In a general sense, executive functions include higher-level cognitive processes like problem-solving, planning, and mental flexibility. Research has shown two particular abilities, information suppression and task switching, to be especially enhanced in bilingual individuals.
You may have seen a common example of information suppression, the Stroop effect. In the Stroop effect, when the name of a color is written in a differently colored font, it takes longer to recognize the named color than if the text and its color correspond. Check out the image the image to the left: most likely, you find the top row of colors easier to name than the second row.
In the second example in the image above, the color of the text and the text itself present conflicting information. As a result, it takes a greater cognitive effort to filter out the irrelevant data and discern the text’s semantic meaning. In studies using the Stroop test, both younger and older bilingual participants outperformed their monolingual counterparts when it came to suppressing irrelevant data. Intriguingly, older bilinguals (but not younger bilinguals) also performed better in the “normal” condition that presented no irrelevant data. These results suggest that older bilinguals are not only able to suppress irrelevant input, but also have a greater degree of cognitive control when it comes to identifying relevant information. In daily life, this means that bilinguals have an easier time paying attention to the appropriate details, like not getting distracted when having a conversation with someone in a noisy coffee shop or restaurant.
Bilinguals also excel at task-switching, shifting gears more accurately and more quickly than monolinguals — perhaps because it resembles the process they use when switching between languages. Task-switching isn’t quite as simple as it sounds in terms of cognitive difficulty; it requires simultaneous awareness of two sets of rules and the understanding of when to use each. An example you might be familiar with is changing between interacting with children and interacting with adults; you use a different set of unspoken rules in each situation.
In addition to the near-term benefits speaking a foreign language provides your brain, it can also protect your brain from disease and dementia down the road. In one study on Alzheimer’s patients, it was determined that individuals who spoke at least two languages displayed symptoms, on average, 4 to 5 years later than those who only spoke one language, even though they averaged fewer years of education than monolinguals. It’s thought that this could be because the cognitive demands of speaking a foreign language help contribute to cognitive reserve, a factor that helps safeguard the brain against Alzheimer’s.
There are many compelling reasons to learn Spanish, and this post tackles just one important subset. Even if you study foreign languages for travel or school, you’re still reaping long-term benefits for your brain!
Please don't forget to like, comment, and share! And if you'd like to see more like this, sign up at the bottom of the page to be the first to know when we release a new blog post!