Bilingual Speakers Have Higher Mental Flexibility, Study Says

By Lisa Franchi on September 13, 2013

Being bilingual doesn’t just make a person ‘appear smart’. A growing body of research suggests that it has indeed a profound impact on the brain, and its benefits extend beyond enhancing one’s communication capabilities.

In a new study, researchers at Penn State University have found that bilingual speakers tend to develop a higher level of mental flexibility. In one experiment, 27 Spanish-English speakers were instructed to read 512 sentences, written in either English or Spanish. Sentences were arranged in an alternate manner. Participants read the sentences silently until they came across a word in red, which they had to read out loud. Nearly half of the words in red look and sound similar and have the same meaning in both languages.

In the second experiment, participants performed the same tasks as those in the first experiment. But this time, they were presented with one language at a time. Results were similar to the first, showing that the context does not influence word recognition.

Bilinguals process both languages at the same time

Researchers found that fluent bilinguals seem to have both languages active in their brain at all times. Both languages are active whether either was used only seconds earlier or several days earlier.

Also, the bilinguals rarely say a word in the unintended language. According to the Penn State team, this indicates that they have the ability to control the parallel activity of both languages and ultimately select the intended language without needing to consciously think about it.

"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." said Judith F. Kroll, Distinguished Professor of Psychology, Linguistics and Women’s Studies.

Their work appears in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

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