Multilingualism enhances our empathy, opens up better job prospects, and allows us to make more precise decisions. These advantages, among others, are closely linked to how the acquisition of two or more languages influences the structure of our brain.
What sets the brains of bilingual and multilingual individuals apart from those of monolinguals?
The Impact of Daily Exercise
We have seen the importance of learning a language in enhancing certain aspects such as
self-esteem and how our mother tongue can help determine how our brain solves mathematical puzzles. It is certain that language has the power to shape our cognition, behavior, and even the structure and the function of the brain.
According to a study on the impact of multilingualism in neural architecture, “the processing of language is among the most ubiquitous yet cognitively complex tasks we engage in every day. However, unlike the effort put into activities such as playing the piano or training for a marathon, the omnipresence of language in almost every aspect of our lives makes it easier to be overlooked as a way of intense exercise.”
The research concludes that lifelong juggling of multiple linguistic systems may have multiple positive effects, both in the function and the structure of the neural architecture of a bilingual person. What’s more intriguing is that these changes can take place even with relatively brief exposure to another language. This highlights how malleable the human brain can be, even in adulthood.
Infants growing up in bilingual households exhibit enhanced cognitive abilities as early as 7 months of age.
Source: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS)
The Architecture of the Brain
Speaking multiple languages not only affects how the brain functions, but also its very structure. A research carried out at the University of Houston and Texas analyzed, on one hand, children who spoke a language other than English and were also exposed to a different language at home and, on the other hand, monolingual English-speaking participants.
The researchers found that bilingual individuals had a thinner cortex than monolinguals in generalized cortical regions. Furthermore, within bilingual children, higher use of English was associated with greater frontal and parietal cortical thickness, while a larger English vocabulary was associated with greater frontal and temporal cortical thickness.
How is this explained in practical terms? During childhood, the brain experiences a “thinning of the cerebral cortex”. When we are born, we have the potential for more brain connections than we will actually use during our lives. From birth until around six years of age, the brain eliminates the connections that will not be utilized.
Despite being born with the ability to learn and process any language, it is true that if we never hear a particular language, the brain will reduce the necessary connections and reallocate its resources to something we are more frequently in contact with. Thus, being closely related to multiple languages creates complex cerebral connections, and this improves cognitive function.
The linguistic network of the brain responds similarly across 45 languages.
Source: MIT Technology Review
Another research involving more than 200 bilingual and monolingual patients with Alzheimer’s disease found that the onset of symptoms occurred more than five years later in the bilingual group compared to the monolingual group. In addition, bilingual patients were diagnosed almost four and a half years later than their monolingual counterparts. This and other studies have concluded that multilingualism helps maintain cognitive reserve and, at the same time, streamlines memory and enhances the overall quality of life.
Being fluent in several languages requires mastery of different sounds, vocabularies, sentence structures and grammatical rules. Moreover, multilingualism exposes us to different cultures and worldviews. This linguistic exercise not only enhances our creativity but also has immensely positive implications for our mental well-being.