Drugs & Health Blog

Bilingual Brains Are Buff

The NIDA Blog Team

The human brain is incredible. With over 100,000 miles of blood vessels and capillaries, over 100 billion neurons, and more than a quadrillion (that’s a one followed by 15 zeroes) connections, your brain does a lot more than process thoughts. It keeps you breathing, moves your body, learns and remembers facts and experiences, and much, much more.

At NIDA, we always stress that staying away from drugs helps keep your body—including your brain—healthy. Researchers have found another way you can keep your brain in peak condition: learn a second language (become bilingual). A bilingual brain can bring you some serious benefits, and not just when it comes to languages.

Ready, set…concentrate

For starters, knowing two languages can make you better at concentrating than someone who knows one language (i.e., someone who is monolingual). Bilinguals get that advantage from constantly selecting one language to use in a particular situation and choosing not to use the other (researchers call it “inhibiting” the unused language). It’s like mental weightlifting, and over time it helps bilingual brains to focus really well.

This kind of concentration can pay off when you’re studying or working on a project. Maybe that’s one reason bilinguals also earn higher salaries on average than monolinguals do.

(How do researchers test a person’s ability to concentrate? They use a “Stroop test,” where you’re asked to name the color of ink a word is written in, but the word itself is a different color. For example, if you see the word "blue" written in red ink, you have to ignore the word that’s written and say "red." Try it; it’s harder than it sounds!)

You must remember this

In general, bilingual people also have better memories than monolinguals, partly because learning a new language requires memorizing a lot of rules, new words, and so on. Learning two languages can even delay certain kinds of memory problems later in life, like Alzheimer’s disease.

Other brain benefits of knowing two languages: being better at multitasking and making decisions, a longer attention span, and quicker adjustment to changes in the environment (such as visiting a different country).

Strangely, there’s no evidence that learning a third language brings more of these brain benefits than learning two languages. But who knows? Your brain may be so buff by then that you won’t want to stop.

Comments posted to the Drugs & Health Blog are from the general public and may contain inaccurate information. They do not represent the views of NIDA or any other federal government entity.

Comments

Thanks for sharing a very interesting post! It is amazing how knowing more than one language can actually change the way our brains work. One more great advantage of being bilingual is that it offers a greater exposure to different cultures and builds bridges between them, and having cultural experiences can create greater tolerance and open-mindedness.
Awesome Blog ... The only thing is that living in the Rio Grande Valley people talk more "Tex-Mex" and many of the kids have "One Language" (so to speak) in a broken mixed Spanglish sentence. Still, the majority of people can handle a 100% English conversation but not a 100% Spanish one. So ... I guess it is always better to learn the Second Language in your own Place Of Birth or Overseas, in a place where you don't have the need to mix them. We Are The Best - Somos Los Mejores :)

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