The advantages of being bilingual
'If you want to be good at maths learn another language!'
Amish Adodra | 24 January 2016

Today it is becoming more prevalent for people to be bilingual: mass communication combined with cheaper travel has made international communication commonplace. Not only does this help in economic situations but new research has shown that knowledge of other languages may also help individuals with increased cognitive and psychological ability. 

Language has been a vital part of civilisation and the ability to communicate emotions and thoughts verbally, instead of chalk painting on rocks, has aided our civilisation’s growth. Many schools teach two or even three languages to their students aiming to help them in a diverse world and boost their cognitive ability. From a survey conducted by the European Commission in 2006 we understood that within the EU 56% of people claim to speak a second language. Bilingualism in America has grown by 140% in recent years, perhaps surprisingly given stereotypes. With the advancement of technology there are no excuses, with free applications that teach us another language of our choice (Mandarin being most popular).   

The main headliner when it comes to psychological advantages of bilingualism relates to the effect on Alzheimer's disease. Language stimulates the centre of the brain: the cerebral cortex. With more and more stimulation, as in multilingualism, this portion of the brain can grow and develop leading to plasticity. 

Plasticity of the brain is where a particular portion of the brain is used more than the others, creating new connections and thus expanding in size.  Baycrest's Rotman Research Institute’s study showed us that a bilingual brain with a larger cerebral cortex can ward off dementia and neurodegenerative diseases (Alzheimer’s) for up to five years (a better result than any medicine on the market). 

Bilinguals enjoy advantages in both multitasking and attention spans in addition to being able to deal with conflict management more effectively than monolingual brains. This can be seen with the classic Stroop task, where interference can affect reaction times, one example is when an individual is asked to name the colour of a word but the word itself spells another word (‘Yellow’). Being able to ignore the extraneous word and having the ability to focus on the colour itself is called inhibitory control. Due to this advanced level of inhibitory control a bilingual brain has, they are able to focus on the relevant stimuli faster than a monolingual brain. 

Anyone reading this have issues with maths? One study by Mark Leikin compared the mathematical performance and ability of both bilinguals and monolinguals, finding the bilinguals were better able to solve the mathematical problem. But the good news doesn't stop there with bilinguals also showing more creativity when solving problems: perhaps speaking another language provides a second way of thinking. If you struggle with maths, learn another language!

Speaking from experience, I can say being bilingual has helped me in many ways. Here I have only touched on the cognitive advantages; the social and cultural advantages are massively useful whether it allows you to watch a foreign film on Netflix or order a meal in a restaurant abroad. Download an app and open your eyes to a new culture whilst perhaps avoiding dementia.

Image sourced under a Creative Commons licence.

James Routledge 2016