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Mapping the Bilingual Brain

Wednesday, December 12, 2012 - 01:00 PM

I was recently introduced to a friend’s five-year-old daughter, and I’m already living in her shadow. She is being raised with not one, not two, but three languages. I began calculating how soon this child would know more total vocabulary than I do, and realized it’s probably already happened.

Nothing makes you feel intellectually insecure like finding out that a child might be smarter than you. But I found some small relief in talking with psychologist and noted researcher Ellen Bialystock, who studies the effects of language on the brain.

“Look, I will never say that bilingual kids are smarter,” says Bialystock, from York University in Toronto, Canada, after I repeatedly peppered her with the question. “That’s something you can never say.”


My relief, however, was cut short as Bialystock continued:

“What we can say is that some of the cognitive processes that are part of intelligence are more developed in bilinguals.”

So what, exactly, does that mean?

Brain Changer

A common view before the 1960s was that teaching a kid more than one language at a young age was confusing. Behavioral studies at the time posited that young minds weren’t developed enough to handle so much information, and that bilingualism was disorienting for children. Since then, countless studies have shown that young brains are a lot more adaptable than old school social scientists gave them credit for being. Learning multiple languages won’t confuse a child, or an adult learner: bilingualism actually reshapes the brain.

(A quick note here: when I refer to “bilingualism,” I’m not talking about taking a couple of Spanish classes so you can order a torta with confidence; most of the cognitive benefits I’m about to point out only happen for people who are certifiably bilingual -- people who pass fluency tests, things like that.)

In one study carried out by Cathy Price, a neuroimaging researcher at University College London, it was discovered that bilinguals had more gray matter in their posterior supramarginal gyrus, a long name for the ridged part of the brain that researchers have associated with vocabulary acquisition.

“When you learn more language, your posterior supramarginal gyrus will get a workout, and be stimulated to grow,” says Price. “When you look at the images, there is more gray matter density with more than one language spoken.” The image below is just one of the brain scans Price's team took of a bilingual brain; it shows the same brain, from three different angles, with the yellow spot identifying the area of the brain where they've seen thickening:

Since gray matter makes up a good portion of the nerve cells within the brain, the more gray matter in that particular gyrus, the faster and more accurately your brain will perform certain tasks. For example, there is evidence that bilingual brains are better at doing tasks where conflicting information has to be processed. In one study, Ellen Bialystok subjected a group of 5 year olds -- some bilingual, some monolingual -- to something called "Simon Tests," which are used to determine how quickly people can respond to confusing stimulus. For example, you might be asked to push a button with your right hand that triggers a light on the left side of your field of view - things like that which feel unnatural. The bilinguals, on the whole, were much better at the tests, which suggests they are much better at sorting out conflicting information.

Since the bilingual brain is adept at suppressing the language that isn’t being used in a given moment, it has experience inhibiting unhelpful information and promoting important stuff. There are lots of benefits to this -- one study found that bilinguals were more able to filter out ambient noise. Speaking two languages means you feel less overwhelmed when trying to order in a busy restaurant, and makes you more capable of talking to someone on a crowded subway.

Price is quick to point out that, at best, any benefits are minimal. Bilinguals are only a few milliseconds faster at sorting information, but, hey, that adds up!

“Bilingualism is an experience,” says Bialystock, and just like any other exercise (e.g., dancing, knitting, using sign language) it re-wires the brain, forming new neurons and new connections.

Preventative medicine

While many contemporary studies have linked bilingualism with a better-performing brain, more recently, a few researchers have begun exploring the question of whether language proficiency affects disease outcomes -- does bilingualism, in other words, help stave off certain illnesses? Bialystok has studied people suffering from dementia and she believes that the healthier bilingual brain actually weathers the ravages of aging better than a monolingual one.

In one experiment published in 2012, Bialystock examined the brain scans of 40 patients diagnosed with probable Alzheimer’s disease. “For our test subjects, we had people with the same level of disease, at exactly the same age,” says Bialystok. They all showed approximately the same symptoms. Their brains, therefore, should look pretty much the same. But what Bialystok found was surprising.

Traditionally, the brain of a person with Alzheimer’s atrophies as neurons die: the brain’s outer layer begins to shrink, and the hippocampus withers. When Bialystok compared the brains of 40 patients, she found that the brains of the bilinguals in the study showed twice as much atrophy as the monolinguals. But despite having far more diseased brains, they had performed as well on cognitive tests as the monolinguals with less diseased brains.

What? With more atrophy, you’d expect the disease to be further along -- you'd expect those patients to have more problems functioning day-to-day. But for the bilinguals, it wasn’t, and they didn’t. Bialystok has undertaken a couple of similar studies in the last few years, and every time, she’s found the same result: language multiplicity appears to hold off the effects of dementia. In one examination of 211 probable Alzheimer’s patients, the effect was so great, she found that the bilingual patients had reported the onset of symptoms 5.1 years later than the monolingual ones.

Bialystock is the first to say that, while her studies are promising, they aren’t definitive. “There are lots of questions here,” Bialystock says. “Like, why would bilingualism fight Alzheimer’s anyway?” But she believes it has something to do with how language re-wires us.

Who's smarter?

That's all good news for that five year old, though I still wanted to know if she was smarter than me.

The closest I could come to an objective measurement was IQ scores...and well, I won't get into the caveats and thorniness of using IQ to measure anything, let alone how smart you are. Quite a few studies explicitly draw a parallel between bilingualism and a high IQ score, but researchers are quick to point out that such a relationship is not perfect.

“One of the IQ tests is a vocabulary test, and in general, we might expect bilinguals to do slightly worse on a [vocabulary] test in one language than if it was their only language,” says Price. 

The reason for this vocab disparity is that bilinguals learn and use each language “for different purposes, in different domains of life,” according to a book by french linguist Francois Grosjean. A kid might learn and use different languages for home and school, which means that, because of context, they won’t get the full vocabulary of either place. Kind of a, “Jack of all trades, a master of none” scenario.

“Bilinguals have a larger vocabulary, since they speak two languages,” says Price, “but they might know fewer words within a language.” 

It seems nit-picky to me to say that a bilingual individual might be at a disadvantage because they don’t speak as many words in each of their languages, and I think it’s fair to say that the cognitive benefits of bilingualism probably outweigh the slight disadvantage they face on a test that is often discredited. Which again is good news for the multilinguals, but not for me and my monolingual ego. And it’s going to be hard to make up for lost time: researchers show that it’s tougher to fluently learn a second or third or fourth language as you age, meaning that adult learners might have a hard time getting the sweet, sweet cognitive advantages that bilingual children enjoy. Even if I start now, I may never catch that kid. Or this one:

A special thanks to Vladimir Sanchez from San Francisco, for sending us Labbers the question about bilingualism that got us thinking in the first place; and to Judy Willis, a neuroscientist/teacher/advocate for bilingual education, for pointing me in the right direction as I set out to report this piece. She blogs about bilingualism for Psychology Today.


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Comments [21]

Sinjoro ENG from Malaysia

Jes, it is right to be bilignual is better for the brain development but which language would enhance better, the Australian research shows Esperanto helps a lot.

Mar. 22 2013 10:30 AM
amarayaher from switzerland, formerly nyc

my son grew up bilingual in spanish and english in nyc until he was 8. at 8, we moved to switzerland and he learned french almost immediately and i would say he is now trilingual as it is as strong as his english and spanish if not , by using it so much here stronger. he is now, at 12 in his third year of german and learning it with ease. he is very easy with languages as he has never had any apprehension associated with language learning, it has always been a positive and necessary and rewarding experience to add another language so i really think that there is nothing blocking or hindering the development of learning new languages.

but i learn the new ones with him and am very happy to do so , so i think that helps.

Feb. 03 2013 05:21 AM
Eric A. Bye from VT

People who are interested in raising children with more than one language may benefit from reading the book Language Acquisition in the Bilingual Child by Dr. Alvino Fantini. I do not know if it is still available, but perhaps it is available through inter-library loan.

Jan. 30 2013 07:20 AM
Carol Goldfus from israel

I, too, am interested if similar studies have been done on music and L1.

Jan. 13 2013 01:23 AM

Along the same line as Jim from Omaha, I'm curious if anyone knows if similar studies have been done with regard to mathematical or musical fluency? Both Math and Music, in addition to being very interrelated, have long been considered by many to be "languages" in the their own right. I wonder if they have similar effects on the brain.

Jan. 10 2013 03:56 PM
Denise from Chicago

A response to David who was asking for advise - My husband is Greek and when our kids were born he spoke only Greek to them and I spoke only English to them. They grew up for some time thinking that he didn't speak English so automatically they responded back to him in Greek. So may others we know allow their kids to respond in English so they never really become comfortable with the language. 21 years later, they still only speak Greek to him even though they know he speaks English. They have no accent and can flip from one language to the next as easily as they turn their heads. We also lived in Mexico for 4 years when they were young and this gave them a 3rd language at just the right time. My daughter was an exchange student in Brazil last year going with no knowledge of Portuguese and returned fluent. What they learn young will affect them more ways than one in their future.

Jan. 05 2013 05:40 PM

I am now 50 years old, and began learning Portuguese at the end of 2008, after a short trip to Brazil. It made me crazy that I couldn't have a conversation with these amazing people, and I became determined to learn.
I would not say that I am fluent now, but I can negotiate a small business transaction in my profession, and can travel alone with confidence on a plane or a bus in Brazil, and can have a conversation with someone as long as they are willing to teach me the meaning of the new words that will invariably arise.
I began to fear the onset of dementia because of losing my keys on a regular basis; now I am confident that I can complain in Portuguese of having lost my keys again, and will no doubt be able to carry on a repetitive dementia-filled conversation with some Brazilian person someday.

Jan. 03 2013 07:29 PM
Denise from Union City, NJ

I am now 50 years old, and began learning Portuguese at the end of 2008, after a short trip to Brazil. It made me crazy that I couldn't have a conversation with these amazing people, and I became determined to learn.
I would not say that I am fluent now, but I can negotiate a small business transaction in my profession, and can travel alone with confidence on a plane or a bus in Brazil, and can have a conversation with someone as long as they are willing to teach me the meaning of the new words that will invariably arise.
I began to fear the onset of dementia because of losing my keys on a regular basis; now I am confident that I can complain in Portuguese of having lost my keys again, and will no doubt be able to carry on a repetitive dementia-filled conversation with some Brazilian person someday.

Jan. 03 2013 07:07 PM
Guy Lalanne

French is hard

Spanish is hard

Chinese dialects are hard.

At the United Nation they have translating machine, that can translate all languages.

Jan. 02 2013 11:47 PM
Tommy McLaurin

I have a good ear I think I fact it pretty good

Jan. 02 2013 02:19 PM
Donald F. Megnin from A variety of places.

Interesting experiments which various people have and are undertaking. In my own case, as the last of three children born to my parents, I was born in the United States and spoke German first (my older brother and sister were born in Germany. Living on our farm, I spoke German first and only after going to kindergarten did I really learn English even though I sometimes heard my brother and sister speaking English to our parents. We also had a grandmother and her sister who only spoke German and hence the use of German was pronounced as the first language used within the family.
As adults, my wife and I lived and worked in Germany on several occasions. Hence, we also spent a considerable amount of time living, teaching, and conducting research in Germany and India among German personnel working on various development projects sponred by the German government.

Dec. 29 2012 10:54 AM
kinche from time to time

duno in which way to say jad so to sound sort of like chris lol

Dec. 28 2012 04:53 PM

My wife is from Mexico and speaks 3 languages and I speak 2-1/2. Our son now speaks 2-1/2. In answer to the question above about raising children. We have done the following: She has spoken to our son in Spanish since birth and I speak to him in English. (This is not a hard rule. We each use the other language from time to time.) We had Spanish speaking care givers when he was young and he has gone to a bilingual school since kindergarten and goes to Mexico once or twice a year. His English and Spanish are flawless. He has never really confused the two. He enjoys both languages. The travel to see his grandparents and the immersion school are probably very important ingredients for his love of Spanish. In our community, those who don't put their kids in immersion tend to find that their kids' love for the language turns to embarrassment and stagnation.

Dec. 28 2012 09:16 AM
Joe Savas from Dallas

I think you should look in more detail at children growing up in ethnically rich areas of Eastern Europe. Children from a very early age speak multiple languages. I know a couple, he is of Italian descent and the wife is of Greek background. Their 3 yo girl speaks English at home, Italian with one grandmother and Greek with the other set of grandparents. Family gatherings are really intriguing, she speaks to people in the appropriate language without any hesitation and that includes relatives she has met for the first time.

By comparison I'm only bilingual. Which is interesting, my brother and I speak with our mother in Greek, but in English to one another. Even with all three of us at the dinner table. Of course, everybody understands everything being said, but there is a certain comfort factor in using the mother tongue with our mother.

Dec. 28 2012 03:16 AM

Good article. I need some advice.

My wife is a Spanish speaker and I am an English speaker. We both learned our respective languages as adults. Now my wife is expecting. We both live in the United States.

My question is this. We would like our child to be bilingual. What is the optimal way to achieve this. Should we speak only Spanish at home and expect the child to learn English outside the home, at daycare, and at school? Should we switch language by day or by week? At some point should we get tutors to ensure the kid reads and writes in both languages.



Dec. 27 2012 04:56 PM
Willis from Toronto, ON, Canada

Random observations about being bilingual.

The members of my father's family (both his parents (born in 1885) and he and his sisters) were fully bilingual English/French, by which I mean no accent in either language, or, if you prefer, a Canadian English accent when speaking English, and a Canadian French accent when speaking French. My father said he didn't know he was speaking two languages until he went to school.

My mother is American, so we always spoke English at home. I am accidentally bilingual, because I was put in a French speaking class (by the school, without asking my parents) from grades 1 to 3; all my classmates spoke French as their first language, and I just absorbed it. Children absorb language at a young age. Think about it... I walked in with no knowledge of French, and yet I picked it up without effort, and without trauma... in fact I thrived in school. Although I have lived my life primarily in English since then, I retain French grammar, syntax (masculine and feminine nouns, for example) and accent. The vocabulary, however, comes and goes. If I am in a situation where I am using French it comes back, then fades again when I stop. Sometimes, when I speak in French, it is from the French 'language centre' of my brain, fluent and instinctive. Other times, I am translating. I cannot control which 'language centre' I'm in.

My son attended a full French immersion program from grades K-12. Non-language subjects were taught in either English or French, almost randomly... depending sometimes on the teacher. We were told when he started that children may appear to read slowly at first because they are in effect learning everything twice, but that by about grade 3 the difference disappears. His experience was similar to mine, except that all his classmates spoke English as a first language. Because they all switched instantly to English once they left the school building, his French vocabulary was oddly limited to whatever he was taught in school. He also studied music. For him and his friends, learning music was learning a language. At 6, he and a buddy, both piano students, spent an afternoon transcribing the theme from Phantom of the Opera from the CD... neither of them had ever seen the music written.

I've read that you always do math in the first language in which you learned it. I do math, and remember numbers like phone numbers and addresses, in English. Because of the way he was taught, my son also does math in English.

Dec. 27 2012 01:58 PM
Christian Chenard from Virginia Beach, VA

Hi Y'all! As a polyglot ( 6 languages in my case, so far !) I I can totally agree with Keith. The way for me to learn a new language is to learn short dialogues of 8 to 15 sentences a day, like how to buy a loaf of bread or some vegetables in a local store; how to buy gas; how to transact at the post office, etc. Every day activities. This does two great things for you: you learn vocabulary and syntax (word order) ! Also, if the language you are learning has word genders, like masculin or feminine or neutral nouns or all of them, you automatically learn those as you memorize the dialogues. On fridays, you combine the dialogues. Pretty soon, after 6 to 12 weeks, depending on how your brain is originally wired, you will have remembered how to say those things, and when you want to dreate a new sentence of your chosing, you simply substitute the new vocabulary you wish to use express your original thought. For those who like to self study, I found Pimsler and Rosetta stone to be helpful; Berlitz did nothing for me.
I tend to disagree with those who contend that those of us who speak more than one language do not have a rich language in one language. I tend to duplicate my vocabulary in most languages I speak, and I'm not even including Latin which I had for 6 years. My brother had 8, and neither one of us is a priest !! Being multilinguists in our family,(no one speaks under 4 languages), we know our cognition is faster than monolinguists. It's just a fact of life.

I should disclose that My bachelor degree is in Linguistics and I have an M.Ed, and three graduate certificates from the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, CA. I have also been a linguist in my 4 decade career as a government analyst and liaison person. When I teach ESL, I have had students from China in their seventies who knew not a word of English when we first met, but after 2-3 years of 6 -8 hours a week, were conversant in 8th grade English or better. Age is a factor, but determination is unbeatable in the field of linguistics, so study on!

It is only fair that

Dec. 23 2012 09:47 PM
Jim from Omaha

As a software developer I often wonder if learning computer programming "languages" has a similar effect. I often think about things in ways that would probably seem very foreign to most people.

Dec. 21 2012 12:47 PM

Good for you, Robert -- way to stretch and exercise your brain. Nothing you can do about when you started, Dennis, you started when you did ... but I would encourage you not to give up so quickly. The goal at our age is not so much to become bilingual (although I am still working toward that goal), but to open doors into new cultures. I started learning Spanish for years ago at the age of 48, and now I am a solid intermediate learner ... I have already gone and spent several months in Spanish speaking countries in locations where few people speak English, and I got along just fine thank you. The key to progressing in a new language is DAILY contact with the language, at least 30 minutes a day but much more if possible (currently I spend about 2 hours a day). There is no magic pill, it takes time on task over several months and years to learn a new language, and it is worth the time. I think of it as a puzzle I am trying to solve. You also need to not get bogged down in boring grammatical studies, but instead start SPEAKING and using the language however little you may know. I have a multi-pronged attack on learning a language, in other words I don't stick with one system or book ... I have used Pimsleur (which is my favorite), Rosetta Stone, Berlitz, LinguaPhone, Destinos, and various other resources and books. Focus on learning vocabulary as much as possible, the more words you know the better you will be, and vocabulary that is interesting to you (such as sports, or knitting, or travel, or whatever). Make it fun and keep on keeping on!

Dec. 18 2012 12:31 PM
Robert McCormick from Louisiana

I am 73. Began learning Spanish 3 yrs. ago as part of my own Alzheimer's prevention program. I study at least one hour daily.

Dec. 17 2012 12:49 AM
Dennis Murrell

Hi Guys

Interesting! After signing up at, I know who found learning multiple languages confusing. It was the adults and not the children.

After 60 years, I find it almost impossible to really learn a second language. Wish I'd had the chance earlier, much earlier.

Regards - Dennis

Dec. 15 2012 05:13 PM

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