By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer
I like to think of the brain as a muscle. The more it’s challenged with learning new concepts, the more it works out, and the stronger it becomes. Well, I know that it’s important to stretch out a muscle before a workout to keep it flexible, but how do you stretch the brain? According to linguists from Penn State, one way is to speak two languages.
You see, bilinguals – individuals who speak two languages – are constantly switching from one language to the other. According to the researchers, this means bilingual brains have a chance to develop more flexibility than individuals who are monolingual – speaking only one language. “In the past, bilinguals were looked down upon,” said Judith F. Kroll, Distinguished Professor of Psychology, Linguistics and Women’s Studies. “Not only is bilingualism not bad for you, it may be really good. When you’re switching languages all the time it strengthens your mental muscle and your executive function becomes enhanced.”
The linguists – language experts – came to this conclusion by running two rather unique tests. In the first experiment, bilingual participants had to silently read 512 sentences that alternated between English and Spanish. If they came across a red-colored word, the volunteers had to read it out loud as quickly as possible! While half of the red words were randomly selected, the other half were cognates – words that look, sound, and mean the same in both languages. Some examples of English and Spanish cognates are the words “tropical,” “ideal,” and “medical.” According to the researchers, cognate words were processed more quickly by bilinguals than the other red words, as if the participants were thinking in both languages at the same time.
Well, maybe they could read the words faster because they had to switch languages every other two sentences, right? Would the result be different if they’d read in one language first, then in the other? Apparently not. In the second experiment, the participants had to read in one language first then in the other, but the results were still the same. “The context of the experiment didn’t seem to matter,” said Jason W. Gullifer, a graduate student in psychology. “If you look at bilinguals, there seems to be some kind of mechanistic control.”
This control mechanism means that bilinguals are more likely to have flexible brains. If you only speak one language, now is the best time to learn another while you’re still young!
Featured image courtesy of Penn State.