Bilingual Minds, Sharper Focus: The Cognitive Benefits of Speaking Two Languages

Human Brain Memories

A recent study indicates that bilinguals may excel at controlling attention and disregarding irrelevant information compared to monolinguals, potentially due to their regular language switching. This finding contributes to the understanding of cognitive flexibility and underscores the diverse benefits of learning a second language.

The new study explored the distinctions between bilingual individuals and monolingual individuals.

People who are bilingual may excel at shifting their attention between tasks more effectively than monolingual individuals, according to a study recently published in the journal Bilingualism: Language and Cognition

Researchers Grace deMeurisse, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Florida, and Edith Kaan, a professor in the department of linguistics, conducted the study. They focused on how bilingual and monolingual people differ in their ability to control attention and disregard irrelevant information.

Efficiency in Ignoring Irrelevant Information

“Our results showed that bilinguals seem to be more efficient at ignoring information that’s irrelevant, rather than suppressing — or inhibiting information,” deMeurisse said. “One explanation for this is that bilinguals are constantly switching between two languages and need to shift their attention away from the language not in use.” 

For example, if an English- and Spanish-speaking person is having a conversation in Spanish, both languages are active, but English is put on hold but always ready to be deployed as needed.  

Numerous studies have examined the distinctions between the two groups in broad cognitive mechanisms, which are mental processes that our brains use, like memory, attention, problem-solving, and decision-making, deMeurisse said.  

“The effects of speaking two languages on a person’s cognitive control is often debated,” she said. “Some of the literature says these differences aren’t so pronounced, but that could be because of the tasks linguists use to research differences between bilinguals and monolinguals.”  

DeMeurisse and Kaan set out to see if differences between the two groups would surface and used a task that has not been applied in psycholinguistics before called the Partial Repetition Cost task to measure the participants’ abilities to deal with incoming information and control their attention.  

“We found that bilinguals seem to be better at ignoring information that’s irrelevant,” Kaan said.  

Study Participants and Methodology

The two groups of subjects included functional monolinguals and bilinguals. Functional monolinguals were defined as those who had two years or less of a foreign language experience in a classroom and use only the first language that they learned as a child.  

Bilinguals were categorized as people who had learned both their first and second language before the ages of 9 to 12 and were still using both languages.   

Kaan explained that an individual’s cognitive traits continuously adapt to external factors, and as humans, we have very few traits that remain fixed throughout our lifetime. 

“Our cognition is continuously adapting to the situation, so in this case, it’s adapting to being bilingual,” she said. “It doesn’t mean it won’t change, so if you stop using the second language, your cognition may change as well.” 

Implications for Bilingualism Research

The UF study demonstrates a need to build more consistencies among the varied experiments used to understand the differences between those who speak one language and those who speak more than one. 

“In the study of bilingualism and cognition, we are redefining the way we talk about differences between bilinguals and monolinguals and searching for more factors to consider and more methods to conduct that research,” deMeurisse said.  

The researchers were also clear to point out that their study was not intended to show that people who speak two or more languages have an advantage over those who speak one. 

“We are not looking for advantages or disadvantages,” deMeurisse said. “However, regardless of cognitive differences, learning a second language is always going to be something that can benefit you, whether those benefits are cognitive, social, or environmental. It will never be a negative to be exposed to a second language.”  

Reference: “Bilingual attentional control: Evidence from the Partial Repetition Cost paradigm” by Grace deMeurisse and Edith Kaan, 20 October 2023, Bilingualism: Language and Cognition.
DOI: 10.1017/S1366728923000731

1 Comment on "Bilingual Minds, Sharper Focus: The Cognitive Benefits of Speaking Two Languages"

  1. “Our results showed that bilinguals seem to be more efficient at ignoring information that’s irrelevant, rather than suppressing — or inhibiting information,”

    How does one determine a priori what is “irrelevant?” It would seem that that determination might actually come long after a conversation has ended. I’m reminded of a joke in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: The hero remarks that “It is times like this that I wish I had paid more attention to what my mother told me.” His companion replies, “What did she tell you?” The hero then responds, “I don’t know. I wasn’t paying attention!”

    Do computer languages qualify for bilingualism? If not, why not? What role, if any, does the size of one’s working vocabulary play? With a finite amount of time to learn a vocabulary, does learning a second language take away from mastery of the first language? How does being a functional bilingual differ from a monolingual with an exceptionally large working vocabulary, especially if the first language — e.g English — incorporates a large proportion of words from other languages? Does it make a difference if the two languages are similar in their origin, or have radically different rules of grammar?

    So many questions! So few intelligent answers.

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