The Benefits of Being Bilingual (With Receipts!)

Article in partnership with Day Translations.

Hi, my name is Paola and I am bilingual Italian/English. I started learning and speaking English in secondary school in Italy, missing out on that “golden age” when, as a child, you can absorb information like a sponge without even thinking. I worked hard studing English grammar, spelling and, most importantly, pronunciation. I’ll tell you for free, getting rid of a thick Italian accent is not for the faint-hearted, you really have to keep at it constantly!

This Is What You Came Here for: The Receipts

First of all I’m giving credit to Open Culture for inspiring this article. In their language and neuroscience section they shared how being bilingual can help your brain. While immigrants to the United States used to be discouraged from speaking their native language to ensure they would get fluent in English and therefore become more integrated into American society, over time this type of mentality became obsolete to embrace more diversity.

Open Culture interviewed a number of experts and one of the key messages was that speaking two languages is an exercise for the mind, basically giving our brains a workout because switching from one language to another uses different abilities and improving memory and concentration.

Cognitive Benefits of Speaking Two Languages

A 2012 research study from Texas A&M University-Kingsville reported that being bilingual from an early age has important effects on brain functions and the ability to process information, with strong indications that it also accelerates “complex cognitive processing”.

The study also mentions that about 50% of the world population is bilingual and that in the United States about 20% of the people are bilingual.

One of the advantages of being bilingual from childhood is that the enhanced cognitive abilities gained are carried into adulthood and later years, slowing down intellectual decline.

Memory Benefits of Speaking Two Languages

A 2014 report from the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology found that being bilingual at an early age has a beneficial effect on a child’s memory, increasing the ability to process and store information. The findings were based on a number of tests involving bilingual children to assess their performance in verbal working memory.

The sample was made of 68 bilingual Turkish-Dutch children, whose performance was measured against 52 monolingual Dutch children. The bilingual children outperformed their monolingual counterparts, despite being from a socio-economic disadvantaged background.

The conclusions from this study remarked how the socio-economic background of bilingual children does not affect their memory abilities when processing two languages.

Keeping Brain Plasticity by Speaking Two Languages

The University of Harvard compared different sources of research about the benefits of speaking two languages. While the advantages on brain’s plasticity from learning and speaking a second language reduce towards the age of 17 and beyond, there have been tests to measure the ability of neural networks to grow and adapt after the typical childhood’s developmental phase.

Talking of the ability to learn a second language to native levels, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), quoted by Harvard, shared out a test on Facebook which was completed by almost 700k respondents. The test results showed that after the age of 17 your ability to learn a new language diminishes greatly.

Generally, bilingual people perform well in tasks where you need to sift through information, only focusing on what is important while discarding what is irrelevant.

In a Nutshell

Being bilingual brings a number of benefits, from the ability to memorise and discern information to preserving your memory and cognitive skills into your old age, therefore slowing down the brain’s aging process and decline.