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.
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.