It was once thought that growing up in a bilingual home was a detriment to a baby’s cognitive development. Scientists believed that the child would become confused or develop schizophrenia or a split personality. Today we know that this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Speaking another language goes far beyond just learning a second set of words, phrases, and metaphors. Learning a second language can actually increase the size of the hippocampus–the area of the brain responsible for creating, storing, and retrieving memories and information–while also increasing the amount of neural pathways connecting other parts of the brain. Here are a few more cognitive benefits to learning another language:
- Multilingual people tend to score better on standardized tests.
- They are better at remembering lists and sequences.
- They are more perceptive to their surroundings.
- They are better able to focus on important information while sifting out unimportant or misleading information.
- They are better decision-makers.
- They are more self-aware spenders.
- They have an advantage to avoid cognitive decline in old age, specifically dementia and Alzheimers.
All of these reasons are great, but how do they work? Imagine you’re sitting in your high school Spanish class and the teacher calls on you for an answer. Your brain’s first response is to fire off in English. You search back in your memory to recall the word in Spanish, and finally a few seconds later voice it out loud for the class to hear. As you continue to practice your new language, your brain strengthens this recall time until answering in Spanish becomes effortless and you can produce the correct response “without even thinking.”
Now imagine that you’re standing on a crowded street corner in Paris asking for directions to the Louvre. Your brain works hard to ignore the noise and stimulus around you, so that it can concentrate on deciphering the wanted information. Imagine standing on the subway in Berlin talking to your friend in English, when an announcement comes over the loudspeaker regarding your upcoming train stop. Your brain switches quickly from English to German.
As your brain learns to change more efficiently between rules and vocabulary of multiple languages, these skills are also transferred to other domains such as solving basic arithmetic, remembering your grocery list, or navigating the cognitive traps in the Reading sections of the ACT or SAT.
These cognitive benefits are irrefutable but there are also many secondhand benefits to multilingualism. Learning a new language broadens your horizons and your life, literally opening your world to new people, new experiences, new cultures, and new opportunities you wouldn’t have had otherwise. You will become more employable, you will be able to meet and network with people from all over the world, and you have more options when choosing where to live and work, all while keeping your brain fit and active. The good news is, you don’t have to become completely fluent to receive these benefits. Learning even 3 new words a day boosts your brain power and keeps you on the path for life-long learning.